Morocco orders UN’s 84 members to leave Western Sahara

Morocco urges UN to pull its 84 members from Western Sahara after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s comments on disputed territory

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Moroccan protesters hold placards and shout slogans in the capital Rabat, on March 13, 2016.

Updated Mar 20, 2016

Morocco ordered the United Nations on Thursday to pull 84 international staff from its Western Sahara mission after accusing UN chief Ban Ki-moon of no longer being neutral in a conflict over the disputed territory.

The Moroccan government, however, reversed a previously announced decision to withdraw all of its troops from UN peacekeeping missions worldwide.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that Morocco said the United Nations and the African Union have three days to remove 84 civilian staff from Western Sahara.

Dujarric said, "All of these measures would seriously impede the functioning" of the mission known as MINURSO, or the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.

UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman is due to brief the Security Council later on Thursday.

The controversy over Ban's comments is Morocco's worst dispute with the United Nations since 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and established the mission.

Rabat accused Ban last week of no longer being neutral in the conflict, criticising his use of the word "occupation" to describe Morocco's annexation of the region at the centre of a struggle since 1975, when it took over from colonial power Spain.

Earlier this month, Ban visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them and fought a war against Morocco until the 1991 ceasefire.

Their Polisario Front wants a referendum, including over the question of independence, but Rabat says it will only grant semi-autonomy.

Three of the people on the list submitted by the Moroccan mission to be withdrawn from MINURSO are from the African Union while the rest are UN staff, the UN press department said. The mission currently has 242 military personnel, 85 international civilian staff, 157 national staff and 12 volunteers.

Neither military personnel nor the head of the mission are affected by the cuts.

Speaking to reporters through an interpreter at the Moroccan UN mission in Manhattan, Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar complained of Ban's "stubbornness."

After speaking with members of the Security Council, Mezouar said Morocco had "decided not to withdraw its troops" from peacekeeping missions. He said Rabat was considering other possible actions but did not elaborate.

Ban says he wants to restart stalled negotiations between Morocco and Polisario Front.

Ban cancelled plans to visit Morocco, his spokesman said on Wednesday.