Ex-Sahara POWs Demand Compatriots’ Release
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Their years of torture and deprivation as prisoners of war may be over, but peace of mind has eluded them. Former POWs who are from Morocco, veterans of an obscure conflict in the disputed Western Sahara region on Africa’s Atlantic coast, are demanding the release of fellow soldiers who remain in rebel hands 14 years after the fighting stopped.
``We are released but not completely released because we have 408 of our own men suffering the same thing,″ said Ali Najab, a Moroccan Air Force captain who spent 25 years as a rebel prisoner.
Those left behind are believed to be world’s longest held POWs.
During a U.S. visit, Najab and six colleagues recounted in an interview with The Associated Press horrific tales of abuse during detention, including torture, forced labor, confinement to tiny cells and near-starvation diets. The seven spent an average of 20 years as POWs.
Scant international attention has been paid to the conflict between Morocco and the rebels, who contest the kingdom’s claim to sovereignty over the hot, virtually rainless but phosphate-rich region that is about three times the size of Austria.
After more than a decade of fighting, a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front insurgents was reached in 1991. But diplomatic efforts for a final settlement have fallen short.
The State Department says it is actively engaged in seeking a political solution and supports U.N. efforts toward this end.
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1975. The Polisario considers the territory, formerly the Spanish Sahara, to be independent.
The 408 Moroccans, detained in the western Algerian town of Tindouf, are a grim reminder of the pain that the conflict continues to impose.
In a gesture of soldierly solidarity, Najab and his colleagues have campaigned in U.S. government offices, on Capitol Hill and in New York and Miami on behalf of the detainees.
``We are here now to put an end to this horrible hell because our friends are there,″ said Ali El Jaouhar, an Army veteran who sobbed as he recounted his suffering.
Najab said that, for an act of insubordination in 1984, he and a second POW were incarcerated and beaten for 14 days with their arms and legs tied behind them.
Others said their isolation was such that their families did not know for years whether they were dead or alive. Mohammed Hadri said he was once confined, his hands tied, inside a shipping container for 33 days in the scorching Saharan summer heat.
Moulud Said, the Polisario representative in Washington, said his group’s refusal to release the POWs was linked to Morocco’s reneging on a promise to hold a sovereignty referendum on the territory.
He said Morocco has been holding 151 Polisario combatants and refuses to give out any information on them.
As for the allegations of torture of the former POWs, Said said, ``If there is any torture, we were never told by the Red Cross that there was torture there.″
The International Committee for the Red Cross has made visits to Tindouf since 1994, interviewing the Moroccan prisoners and bringing them letters and packages from home, Said said.
The International Court of Justice and the African Union have supported the Polisario sovereignty claim. The United Nations does not.
The U.S., along with other countries, says the Polisario is required under international humanitarian law to free the prisoners.
After meeting with the former POWs last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, demanded their release, saying the detention is ``a travesty of human rights.″
On the Net:
State Department background on Morocco, Western Sahara: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5431.htm
Western Sahara news: www.arso.org
Movement to free the POWs: www.freethemnow.org