Tindouf, Western Sahara. As a long-running and little-noticed African war finally shows signs of getting serious outside mediation, 85 sick Moroccans now serve as a paradoxical reminder of the problems of seeking peace.
The dispute over the Moroccans, former prisoners of war, results from the first big UN push to resolve the 22 years of conflict between Morocco and the Polisario rebels, who would like a forlorn, sparsely populated desert land known as the Western Sahara to become sovereign - the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic.
In April, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III entered the negociations as the special envoy of the UN secretary general. The Polisario, as a gesture of good will to push the talks, freed the 85 Moroccans. The men were taken hostage at various times over the last 22 years.
But Morocco has refused to take them back. Accepting former "prisoners of war", it seems, would be tantamount to an acknowledgement of "war" with the Polisario - an acknowledgement King Hassan II of Morocco is loath to make, lest he dignify the Polisario claim of sovereignty over this territory of about 160 square miles. Two weeks ago, however, Morocco's leadership seemed to have done just that. In meetings in London, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelatif Filali met his Polisario counterpart, Mafoud Ali Beiba - and both sides agreed to study a plan to count potential voters in an eventual sovereignty referendum.
Some of them - chosen for release because of serious ailments - have been in the hands of the Polisario for 22 years, since the war began. They are victims of one of the longest conflicts in Africa. (...)
The former prisoners are now in a "center" near Tindouf in the southwest, near where Algeria, Morocco, and the Western Sahara meet, in a large yard surrounded by about 50 mud-brick houses and the desert.
Last month, the released prisoners gathered and one of them answered reporters' questions. When they were prisoners, the spokesman said, "medical care depended upon the general availability and came according to the situation and possibilities of the Polisario." Several received care from fellow prisoners who were doctors.
About the treatment they received in the Polisario's prisons, he began by saying that "before being soldiers, we are men, and without his freedom, man is nothing." However, he asserted that their physical and material needs had been fulfilled and that they had never been tortured.
According to the Polisario, Baker has spoken to the Moroccan government, and it has refused entry to the released soldiers.
The reasons for the refusal to accept Moroccan subjects are not clear; the positions of the Polisario and the liberated prisoners of war are. "The liberation of these prisoners of war was a gesture to show Baker that we support him in making his mission a success" declared Mohammed Abdelaziz, the Polisario's president.
The Polisario's representative at the United Nations, Ahmed Bukhari added, "We have a moral engagement towards him to keep this liberation a humanitarian affair." The liberated prisoners also are concerned that politics could significantly prolong their sojourn. One of them denounced a Swiss radio that, they said, attributed to them negative comments toward Morocco they did not make.
Baker apparently released this information to the press. A television crew asked to see the liberated prisoners but the Polisario refused, fearing that such coverage would upset the Moroccan government and impede Baker's actions.
The Moroccan refusal has a precedent. In 1989, the Polisario freed 200 of the oldest and most ill Moroccan prisoners of war, and they waited six years in camps before Morocco accepted them.