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Morocco/Western Sahara: 201 Moroccan prisoners released and repatriated

14-12-2000 News Release 00/46

Geneva (ICRC) - On 14 December the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) repatriated 201 Moroccan prisoners released by the Polisario Front. Escorted by an ICRC team, the prisoners left Tindouf, Algeria, aboard an aircraft chartered by the organization and were handed over to the Moroccan authorities at the Inezgane military base, near Agadir. Before the operation, ICRC delegates had interviewed the prisoners individually to make sure that they were being repatriated of their own free will. All the prisoners were allowed to take their personal effects with them.

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger travelled to Tindouf the very same day with Werner Kaspar, head of operations for the region. The release and repatriation took place three weeks after private talks that Mr Kellenberger had near Tindouf with Mr Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary-General of the Polisario Front, while on an official visit to Algeria. Among other things, his discussions with the Algerian authorities, in particular President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who supported the ICRC's efforts, focused on the plight of the Moroccan prisoners.

The ICRC welcomes the release of the 201 prisoners, most of whom are sick and elderly. However, it remains concerned about the plight of the 1,481 Moroccans still held captive and views the repatriation as a step towards the release of all prisoners.

ICRC delegates visit the prisoners twice a year. During its visits, the last of which took place in November, they provide the prisoners with aid, mainly medical, and enable them to exchange news with their families by means of Red Cross messages. In February 2000 the ICRC had repatriated 186 prisoners released by the Polisario Front.

While he was in Tindouf, Mr Kellenberger expressed his hope that a way would be found to settle all the issues relating to the Sahrawi refugees who have been living in exile for many years and to families without news of their relatives missing in action