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Release all war detainees, urges ICRC

Country Map - Western Sahara
Western Sahara (IRIN)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reiterated a call for the release of all persons detained in connection with the 27-year conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the future of Western Sahara.

The call followed visits by the ICRC to the families of some of the 1,362 Moroccans detained by the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Sagui el-hamra and Rio de Oro), the committee reported in its latest update on the conflict.

ICRC visited 396 families between 3 and 14 February, giving them news of their detained relatives, and collecting photos and letters to take to the prisoners, the ICRC said.

The conflict has led to "countless of children who have grown up without a father, wives who are still waiting for their husbands to return, mothers whose only wish is to see their son one last time", ICRC said. It expressed concern about the "increasing poor physical and mental health of the 1,362 prisoners, 916 of whom were captured over 20 years ago" and called for their release.

The Polisario Front freed 115 of its prisoners in January. Morocco says it has no prisoners of war, but the Polisario contends that it does, a humanitarian source told IRIN.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975, soon after Spain withdrew from it. The Polisario Front then launched its struggle for the independence of the former Spanish territory.

Following a cease-fire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), was deployed in September 1991 to monitor the cease-fire and organise a referendum to allow the territory's people to decide its future status. The holding of the referendum has been stalled by lack of agreement between the two parties on various issues, including the question of who is eligible to vote.

MINURSO's current mandate expires on Thursday and, in his latest report on Western Sahara to the UN Security Council, published last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested its extension to 30 April.

He also said its withdrawal was one of four future options. Another was that the UN resumes trying to implement a 1988 settlement plan, even without the agreement of the two parties. A third option would entail the revision by Annan's Personal Envoy, James Baker III, of a more recent draft framework agreement, again without the two parties' agreement if necessary. The Polisario Front had rejected that agreement. The fourth option would involve discussing the possible division of the territory with the interested parties.

The Security Council is scheduled to hold talks on Western Sahara on Tuesday.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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