CRG repatriates Moroccan POWs

Capt. Jenny Lovett
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***Local Airmen facilitated a repatriation of the world’s longest-serving prisoners of war Aug. 18 in Algeria and Morocco.

Sixty Airmen from the 86th Contingency Response Group, Air Forces
Europe and 723rd Air Mobility Squadron and a mix of Marines in the area
deployed to affect the transfer and to safely and securely transport
the 404 POWs home to Morocco after 25 years of captivity.

“The POWs were captured in the 1970s during the war near Western Sahara
and southwest Algeria and have been held near the small town of
Tindouf, Algeria, in the Sahara Desert this entire time,” said Lt. Col.
Michael Marra, 86th CRG deputy commander.

They are the last remaining group from among approximately 2,000
Moroccan POWs who were captured by the Polisario Front during the
conflict fought over the status of the Western Sahara between 1975 and
1988, said Senator Richard Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee Chairman who is credited with bringing all involved parties

Many of the POWs were in poor physical and psychological condition
after 25 years of brutal captivity, Colonel Marra said. The living
conditions in the Sahara are primitive and austere under normal
conditions, but the POW camp produced an extreme test of survival.

On hand to negotiate the release was the International Red Cross,
Algerian and Moroccan ambassadors, representatives from the Polisario,
U.S. officials including Senator Lugar and Gen. James Jones, U.S.
European Command commander.  The Ramstein Airmen, with the help of
Marines who were stationed in the area, synchronized all the
organizations involved with the repatriation.

“They did everything from surveying the airfields, arranging the
airlift, providing the support equipment needed and the medical
assistance as well as a force protection and security plan,” said
Colonel Marra.  

The group also took control of the POWs and loaded them into the
aircraft, cared for them while in-flight and turned them over to
Moroccan officials at the destination airfield within a matter of days
from notification.

“We have never done anything like this – it’s a very satisfying feeling
to know we had a part in giving these Soldiers their lives back after
so long,” said Master Sgt. Eric Hein, 786th Security Forces Squadron
who actually worked with the POWs there in Algeria.

“This is one of those missions you remember the rest of your life – it
was incredible to be a part of something like this,” said Staff Sgt.
Sean Stackhouse, 86th Air Mobility Squadron communications specialist.