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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 17:40 GMT
Polisario to release Moroccan POWs
Tent city in Western Sahara
Polisario has been fighting for independence since 1976
The Polisario Front, which is campaigning for an independent state in Western Sahara, has said it plans to release 115 Moroccan prisoners of war.

Some of the POWs have been in captivity for more than a quarter of a century.

No date has been set for their release, but it follows a request from Spain, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union.

Soldier in the Western Sahara
Despite the 1991 ceasefire, negotiations for a political solution are deadlocked
The Polisario Front said the 115 prisoners, all of them now elderly or middle-aged men, would be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Their release is a goodwill gesture to mark the new year and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Front said in a statement.

The announcement has been welcomed by Morocco - and by Spain and France, the former colonial powers in the region.

The last time Polisario freed POWs was just over a year ago when 200 Moroccans - most of them sick and elderly - were flown home.

However, the movement continues to hold nearly 1,500 Moroccan prisoners of war in the wind-swept desert plains.

Harsh conditions

The older prisoners have been there almost since the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front began in the mid 1970s.

Human rights groups say conditions in the remote desert jails along the border between Morocco and Algeria, the Polisario's ally, are extremely harsh, with intense heat and a constant threat of sand storms.

UN special envoy James Baker
James Baker's latest proposals have been rejected by Polisario
The United Nations has been trying for many years to resolve the dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the sovereignty of Western Sahara.

Morocco claims and controls most of the sparsely populated area, which has a 1,500-kilometre (945-mile) Atlantic coastline, with accompanying fishing rights and a wealth of phosphates and other minerals.

A ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco has been in force since 1991, but a promised referendum to determine the territory's future has never been held.

There has been continuing disagreement over who should be eligible to vote.

More recently, UN special envoy James Baker has tried to gather support for a new political solution, under which Western Sahara would become an autonomous region under Moroccan control.

But the Polisario Front has rejected the proposal as a UN retreat under Moroccan pressure.

See also:

27 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Morocco
03 Dec 01 | Africa
Chirac stirs tension in Sahara
23 Nov 01 | Africa
Polisario calls for royal talks
01 Mar 01 | Africa
Sahara refugees' long wait
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