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Rebels Free Hundreds of Morocco Troops

From Associated Press

Hundreds of Moroccan soldiers held for as many as 20 years by Western Sahara guerrillas were freed Thursday under a deal mediated by the United States.

The Polisario Front fought Morocco for years, seeking independence for an expanse of mineral-rich desert, and the U.S. expressed hope that the POW release would provide momentum for a settlement.

Two U.S. military-chartered airplanes brought the 404 men to Agadir, a southern coastal city, a few hours after their release. The Polisario Front was holding them at prison camps in Algeria’s southwestern desert even though fighting ended in 1991.

Morocco rejoiced at the release, praising the U.S. role. However, a Foreign Ministry statement suggested the return of the POWs alone would not unblock the stalemate over the Western Sahara, which Morocco calls its “southern provinces.”

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The mass release was merely a “belated accomplishment of an international obligation” that “in no way” could be viewed as a gesture by the Polisario or an intervention by Algeria, said the statement, quoted by the official MAP news agency.

Morocco praised the prisoners for enduring the “suffering, exactions, intimidation and humiliation inflicted by their various torturers and jailers.”

A Polisario Front official said Morocco should account for captured guerrillas and let Western Sahara’s people vote on their future.

There was no immediate comment from the freed soldiers.

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U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, oversaw the release at the Polisario base in Tindouf, Algeria.

The men were flown home under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The group had regularly visited the prisoners over the last five years, helping them to contact their families.

Western Sahara, about the size of Nevada and with a population of 270,000, was a Spanish colony until 1975. Morocco then annexed the northern portion and later all of it but faced rebel resistance.

The fighting ended in 1991 with a cease-fire calling for a referendum on the region’s future.

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