Western Sahara & Morocco 
Red Cross asks Sahrawi to release war prisoners

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afrol News, 2 June - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has again called on the POLISARIO Front to release Moroccan prisoners of war, most of whom the liberation movement has been holding for at least 20 years. 

- The ICRC has long maintained that the prisoners should be released without delay, and that the most infirm should be the first to be freed, the Red Cross said in a statement on Thursday. 

Four Red Cross delegates - among them a medical doctor, a dentist and an ophthalmologist - visited 796 of the 1,479 prisoners between 11 and 25 May, and assessed their health and living conditions.

The detainees are being held in six centres in the Tindouf region of Algeria (where, the Red Cross says, Sahrawi refugees are living in extremely difficult conditions) and in areas of Western Sahara controlled by POLISARIO. The Red Cross said the delegates "gave the prisoners an opportunity to send Red Cross messages to their families" and provided them with 470 kg of medical supplies.

Ten prisoners received dentures and six others suffering from trichiasis or cataracts underwent surgery. A total 120 pairs of prescription glasses were also handed out, the Red Cross said. 

During their visit, the delegates held discussions with officials of the POLISARIO Front and members of civil society on 178 Sahrawi combatants reported missing during the conflict. 

The Moroccan prisoners of war held by the POLISARIO Front have remained one of the key critics against the liberation movement for years, as it violates international law. On the other side, the Moroccan government, not recognising the POLISARIO, detains great numbers of POLISARIO fighters and sympathisers under equally difficult prison conditions. Morocco does not recognise these prisoners as prisoners of war - a stand it is regularly criticised for.

An exchange of Moroccan and Sahrawi prisoners of war has been promoted regularly by foreign countries, organisations and the UN, all involved in the troubled peace process. The exchange, obligatory by international law, should have produced an important step of confidence building between the parties, but confidence presently seems to be at an all-time-low.

Especially the horrible humanitarian conditions the prisoners of war on both sides are exposed to have provoked regular international protests. The holding of several prisoners of war for over 20 years collides with all principles of humanity and only serves the two parties as a negotiating platform in their continued struggle for political authority over the Western Sahara territory. 

Sources: Based on ICRC and afrol archives

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