updated 8/18/2005 8:15:07 AM ET 2005-08-18T12:15:07

Polisario guerrillas on Thursday released their last Moroccan prisoners, 404 soldiers held for up to 20 years and long after fighting ended in a war over the barren but phosphate-rich Western Sahara, the Red Cross announced.

The Moroccans had been held in Polisario camps in southern Algeria and were to be repatriated under Red Cross auspices, flown to Agadir Thursday afternoon. Their release follows U.S. mediation and removed one of the obstacles to peace for the Western Sahara region.

"We absolutely do welcome this, the end of this long period of internment," said Red Cross spokeswoman Nada Doumani, adding the Red Cross had repeatedly asked for their release and would continue to work to uncover the fate of others missing from both sides in the conflict.

Some of those being released were caught as young men, and are going home middle-aged.

The Polisario Front said it hoped the release would help clear the way for a peace settlement for Western Sahara. It urged Morocco to respond by also releasing prisoners of war and to account for people missing from the conflict.

"As a result of this gesture, the Polisario Front has no further debts to anyone, there are no possible reproaches to be made," said Polisario representative to Europe Mohamed Sidati in a statement that preceded the prisoner release.

"We hope thus to contribute to the reduction of the suffering of the Saharawi people in the territories occupied by Morocco as well as contributing toward a just and lasting resolution of the conflict."

Pressure on Morocco
The release could increase pressure on Morocco to reciprocate by releasing or accounting for Polisario POWs and missing civilians and to allow a referendum on Western Sahara's future that was promised in 1991 as an enticement to end the fighting in a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

Morocco's late King Hassan II flooded Moroccans into the Western Sahara after Spain ended its colonization in 1975, and around 200,000 Saharawis, as the people of the region are known, fled into Algeria.

"These officers, sub-officers and soldiers were captured in the course of fighting," said the Polisario statement.

Noting that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a new special envoy for Western Sahara as recently as July, the Polisario said it hoped for "a climate which will favor a dynamic for peace, which we would like to believe will be irreversible."

A senior U.S. senator, Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was in Algeria, apparently to witness the prisoner release.

Lugar arrived in Algeria on Wednesday, bearing a message from U.S. President George W. Bush for Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the official Algerian APS news agency reported.

The senator was expected to make a statement in Agadir later on Thursday. He was accompanied by Gen. James L. Jones, commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

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