Annan welcomes release of Moroccan POWs in Western Sahara

18 August 2005

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today welcomed the decision by the Frente POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro) to release all remaining 404 Moroccan prisoners of war, who are being repatriated to Morocco by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In a statement issued by his spokesman, he expressed his appreciation to all parties involved, in particular the ICRC and United States Senator Richard Lugar. The Secretary-General described the release as “a positive step,” and he expressed his hope that it would serve to foster better relations between the parties and contribute to overcoming the present political impasse.

He also reiterated his call on the Kingdom of Morocco, and on the Frente POLISARIO, to continue cooperating with the ICRC to account for those who are still missing.

Western Sahara, a territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, was administered by Spain until 1976. Both Morocco and Mauritania affirmed their claim to the territory, a claim opposed by the Frente POLISARIO.

The UN has been seeking a settlement since Spain's withdrawal and the ensuing fighting between Morocco, which had "reintegrated" the Territory, and the Frente POLISARIO, supported by Algeria.

In 1991 the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was set up to monitor a ceasefire and to organize and conduct a referendum which would allow the people of Western Sahara to decide the territory's future status.

“This action closes a tragic aspect of the conflict in Western Sahara and brings to a successful conclusion one of the longest standing cases of detained POWs in recent history,” MINURSO said in a separate statement.