Polisario releases all remaining Moroccan prisoners of war

The Polisario Front, which is fighting for Western Sahara to be recognised as an independent state, on Thursday released all remaining Moroccan prisoners-of-war, some of whom had been held in captivity for more than 20 years.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said 404 prisoners had been released in Tindouf, Algeria, following mediation by the United States, and were on their way home to Morocco.

"Their repatriation ends a long period of internment and marks an important step in resolving the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Western Sahara," the Geneva-based group said in a statement.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- who earlier this month opposed scaling down the size of MINURSO, the UN mission in Western Sahara -- said he hoped that Thursday's prisoner release would trigger other break-throughs.

"The Secretary-General considers the release a positive step and expresses his hope that it will serve to foster better relations between the parties and contribute to overcoming the present political impasse," his office said in a statement.

A territorial dispute has raged in Western Sahara for nearly 30 years, since former colonial power Spain withdrew from this sliver of desert land in 1976. Morocco moved in to fill the void, incurring the wrath of the Polisario who staked their own claim and vowed to fight for independence.

The prisoners released on Thursday were among more than 2,000 captured in the 16-year armed guerrilla campaign the Polisario waged against the Moroccan forces, which came to an end with a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

The release of the final 404 was overseen by US Senator Dick Lugar at the request of US President George W Bush.

However, 14 years after the ceasefire and with all Moroccan prisoners released, the political dispute rumbles on. The UN has spent more than US $600 million since the guns fell silent trying to find a solution to the conflict.

It estimates Western Sahara is home to around 460,000 people although 150,000 of them are currently living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, where many have spent the last 30 years.

Late last month, Annan appointed a new special envoy for Western Sahara -- Peter Van Walsum, a Dutch diplomat.

The current peace deal, put on the table in 2003, provides for Western Sahara to be given self-rule for a period of four to five years. After that, its long-term residents and the refugees in Algerian camps would vote in a referendum to choose whether the territory is to be fully integrated with Morocco, continue to have autonomy within the Moroccan state, or become independent.

The plan has been accepted by the Polisario movement, but rejected by Morocco.

Mohamed Sidati, the Polisario's minister delegate for Europe said that his movement had done their part by releasing the remaining prisoners on Thursday and suggested that the ball was now in Morocco's court.

"As a result of this gesture, the Polisario Front has no further debts to anyone, there are no possible reproaches to be made," Sidati said in a statement published on the internet.

"This will contribute, we hope, to generate a climate which will favour a dynamic for peace, which we would like to believe will be irreversible," he said.

There was no official comment from Morocco.