Reuters, Algeria, April 27 1997
Prisoners released as Baker visits Sahara refugees.
By Tracey Ober, SMARA, Algeria, (Reuter)
Special U.N. envoy James Baker's visit to the desolate desert refugee camp of Smara in Algeria on Sunday was rewarded with the promised release of 85 Moroccan prisoners of war by the Sahara independence movement.
The former U.S. Secretary of State, who was making his last stop on a fact-finding mission to unblock the peace process in the Western Sahara, said he was optimistic about solving the smoldering conflict, which has threatened to rekindle into war. "This is, of course, a very tough problem but it is not in my opinion hopeless or I wouldn't otherwise be here," Baker told at a news conference after meeting with leaders of the Polisario Front, the Sahara's independence movement. He announced that the Polisario Front was releasing the 85 prisoners in a surprise move that he said was "a very, very generous humanitarian gesture of support for our mission".
The Polisario Front has been holding some 2,000 prisoners of war, some of them for more than 20 years.
The Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco claims, is a mass of sand in northwestern Africa that has 1,500 km (945 miles) of Atlantic coastline with accompanying fishing rights and a wealth of phoshates and other minerals.
The Saharawi people, nomads who have struggled for more than 20 years for independence in the area, greeted Baker's visit with an almost desperate sense of hope. Tens of thousands of refugees lined the dusty road into Smara welcoming Baker's convoy of jeeps like a liberating army with women ululating, children cheering, men in flowing robes giving peace signs and everyone waving the Sahara flag.
Some 2,000 troops also stood at attention, many of them aged and bent, veterans of the war started in 1976 when the Polisario took up arms against Morocco and Mauritania and ended by a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in September 1991. The ceasefire called for a referendum on the status of the area, but was delayed again and again and finally abandoned in 1995 after a continuing dispute over who was eligible to vote.
A U.N. official, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said Baker's mission was to find a post-referendum solution with some sort of federal state status for Western Sahara rather than full independence the most likely outcome. The Polisario and the Saharawi people remain vehemently opposed to anything but a referendum on independence based on the last Spanish census made before Moroccans started moving in. "There must be complete independence or a referendum based on the Spanish census. There is no other criteria, " chief council to the Sahara presidency Mohammed Uldzio told Reuters after meeting Baker. Baker, who arrived from Mauritania, was on his first visit to the region since U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him as his personal envoy for Western Sahara last month.
He also visited Morocco and held talks with Algerian leaders in Algiers. On Sunday he met Polisario leader and President of the self-proclaimed Arab Sahara Democratic Republic, Mohammed Abdelaziz, in Smara instead of the Polisario headquarters in Tindouf after a sand storm made travel in the area difficult. Baker, whose diplomatic experience in the Gulf War and the Middle East is seen as useful experience for piecing together Western Sahara, said all the parties had expressed full support for his mission.
"I am convinced that the people in this region are overly weary with this issue and this problem and are ready for a just, lasting and definitive solution, " Baker said.
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