RABAT â€” The release of the last Moroccan prisoners of war held by separatist rebels in southwestern Algeria reignited efforts Friday to resolve the 30-year-old conflict in the Western Sahara.
The conflict began in 1975 with the annexation of the Western Sahara by Morocco. The Algerian-backed separatist Polisario Front rebels, who released the 404 Moroccans Thursday, demands the independence for the territory while Rabat advocates a “large autonomy” under a “non-negotiable” Moroccan sovereignty.
US Senator Richard Lugar, who spearheaded the international attempts to free the prisoners, said after a meeting with King Mohammed VI in Tetouan that neither Algeria nor Morocco had proposed any “original suggestions” to resolve the Western Sahara standoff, but added that he had encouraged them to do so. He said he hoped the prisoner release would recommence “an important dialogue” and offer the opportunity for improving relations between the north African neighbours. The Polisario Front captured more than 1,000 Moroccans during its conflict with Morocco, but it has since gradually released the detainees, many of them soldiers, under pressure from foreign governments and international organisations.
Under a UN-supervised 1991 ceasefire agreement, between Morocco and the Polisario Front, all prisoners were to be released immediately. Lugar, who supervised the release of the Moroccan prisoners, called Thursday for Algeria and Morocco to “create a regional climate conducive to a resolution of the Western Saharan question,” a view shared by the European Union.
The EU’s executive European Commission reiterated Friday its support for the efforts of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan “to find a definitive and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict in the Western Sahara within the framework of the UN resolutions.”
Even though the military phase of the conflict ended in 1991 with the ceasefire, the relations between Algeria and Morocco have remained tense. They have also been a counterweight against the moves towards regional integration between the five states of the Arab Maghreb Union: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
Morocco while welcoming the release of the prisoners said, in a statement by the foreign ministry, that Algeria “remains responsible for what has and hasn’t happened on its territory.”
Algeria described the prisoner release as a “catalyst of a dynamic of peace” and said it supported the UN’s peace plan for the region.
However, the UN blueprint has been rejected by Morocco as it provides for autonomy for the region during a five-year transitional period before the holding of a referendum.
This was the proposal negotiated by former US secretary of state James Baker, who resigned last year as the UN chief’s special envoy to the Western Sahara.
Baker, at the time, expressed frustration over the lack of progress in implementing his plan on transitional autonomy and a self-determination referendum.