Prisoner release gives hope for W. Sahara peace

The Polisario Front freed 404 Moroccan prisoners of war held captive for, in some cases, 20 years.

Arguably the world's longest-held prisoners of war went home last week.

The Polisario Front, an armed liberation movement that has fought Morocco for the past 30 years over territory known as Western Sahara, on Thursday released the 404 Moroccan prisoners it held - in some cases, for as long as 20 years.

Polisario leader Mohammed Abdelazziz said that the release signaled "a humanitarian approach" that he hoped would be matched by Morocco. That sentiment was echoed by the Bush administration, which sent US Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana to oversee the release.

But Morocco, though welcoming the release, downplayed the gesture as conciliatory. The country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the act did not "hide the stubbornness" of the Polisario, since it "conditions this liberation on the political settlement of an artificially created conflict."

This desert region has been controlled by Morocco since 1975. For the Saharawi people, it is their home, a place for which the Polisario Front has fought for decades. For the Moroccans, however, Western Sahara - the "southern provinces," as the government prefers to call the area - is an integral part of their national territory.

Western Sahara became a source of contention in the mid-1970s, when Spain officially ceded sovereignty of the territory, and the Polisario Front sought to secure the land as an independent state for the Saharawi people. Although the International Court of Justice had established the Saharawi's right to self-determination, Morocco sent a massive force to occupy Western Sahara in 1975, initiating a war with the Polisario.

In 1991, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire - the terms of which required a self-determination referendum for Western Sahara - and installed a peacekeeping force, called MINURSO. After political wrangling delayed the referendum, UN special envoy James Baker attempted in 1997 to negotiate a solution. But his efforts failed when Morocco rejected the plan in 2003.

Today, Moroccan officials profess willingness to discuss a solution to the 30-year conflict, but they refuse to negotiate an open referendum. Laayoune councilman Moulay Ould Errachid backs a federalist approach to the problem, one that would allow greater autonomy to Western Sahara. "But," he says, "we will not debate Moroccan sovereignty with anyone."

Morocco's refusal to hold the referendum is, for Brahim Gali, the Polisario's representative in Spain, a violation of international law and a clear indication that Morocco fears such a vote.

"We don't know if a majority of Saharawi would vote for independence," says Mr. Gali, "but we're not afraid of elections. The one who is afraid is the one who won't let the vote go forward."

Ali Lmrabet, a Moroccan journalist, takes a more forceful position. "If you believe the official Moroccan press, then only a few Saharawi want independence. If that's the case, then why not hold the vote? Because the truth is that most Saharawi don't want to be Moroccans. Personally, I'd prefer that Western Sahara remain part of Morocco, but the important thing is that the Saharawi choose for themselves. I can't force anyone to be a Moroccan."

Perhaps nobody finds the conflict over Western Sahara more intractable than the men and women sent to prevent it from erupting into open warfare. MINURSO political officer Carmen Johns is blunt in her assessment: "The parties involved have no common ground."

Indeed, they do not even share a vocabulary. When war broke out in 1975, thousands of Saharawi fled to Algeria where, to this day, they live in camps that rely on car batteries for electricity and on international donations for food. But Morocco sees the 80,000 to 160,000 (even the census numbers are disputed) residents of the Tinduf camps not as refugees, but as hostages of the Polisario, which it considers a terrorist organization controlled by Algeria.

While this conflict's solution seems far away, discord in the streets grows. In the Western Sahara's capital, Laayoune, the mood is anxious. Police vans circle continuously, and rumors of wiretaps and arbitrary arrests are common. The last few months have seen a cycle of protest and repression, as Saharawi demonstrate against the Moroccan government, and Moroccan officials respond with arrests and - according to reports received by Amnesty International - torture.

The largest public demonstrations occurred in May, when hundreds of Saharawi in Laayoune and elsewhere protested harsh police measures and demanded independence. Of the hundreds detained by police during those demonstrations, 33 men were indicted, and 15 stood trial in Laayoune on July 12.

Since the trial, a number of pro-referendum activists have landed in Moroccan jails. Several international delegations seeking to investigate the situation have, in recent months, been turned back at the Laayoune airport.

Laayoune's officials call these actions reasonable measures by a government concerned with its citizens' security. And they reject the idea that democratic reform is foundering in Western Sahara.

"It's easier to be dictators than democrats," says Hamid Chabar, the government's liaison with MINURSO. "But we have made an absolute choice in favor of democracy, and we are not going to change."

Asking that her name not be printed for fear of reprisals, the sister of one of the men sentenced to eight years for his involvement in the May protest was outspoken about the conviction. "My brother was convicted for one reason only," she said angrily. "He wanted a referendum. There is no justice in Laayoune."

With the release of the Moroccan prisoners, however, the Polisario clearly hopes it will get a little justice in return. Mohammed Beisat, Saharawi ambassador to Algeria, told the Spanish newspaper El País that he expected a "positive and rapid" response from Morocco - one that would include the release of its 33 Saharawi political prisoners.

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