The United Nations has closed its military liaison office in the disputed territory of Western Sahara due to a demand by Morocco amid an escalating dispute over comments by the UN chief, a UN spokesman said on Tuesday.
Dozens of UN international staffers pulled out of the Western Sahara mission (MINURSO) on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave because Secretary-General Ban Ki moon used the term "occupation" during a recent visit, Morocco considers the term “unacceptable."
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 with the Sahrawi people over the Western Sahara and established the mission.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Morocco demanded the closure of the UN Dakhla military liaison office.
"The three military observers based there were relocated to the Asward team site, on the western part of the territory, controlled by Morocco. Morocco's request to close the liaison office in Dakhla is the first request directly targeting the military component." Haq said.
He said the liaison office was the UN's "face-to-face counterpart to the Royal Moroccan Army" and now with the relocation a direct dialogue with the army has become "more difficult."
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric scolded the Security Council on Friday for not issuing a strong statement of support for him and MINURSO in the dispute, something council diplomats blamed on Morocco's traditional ally France, along with Spain, Egypt and Senegal.
Haq repeated Ban's desire for a statement of support from the council.
"In enough time, a lack of a statement can indeed be interpreted as a statement of its very own," he said.
Rabat accused Ban earlier this month of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara dispute when he used the word "occupation" to describe Morocco’s 1975 annexation of the region it took over from colonial power Spain.
Ban had also visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them.
The Polisario Front, backed by Morocco’s regional rival Algeria and several African states, seeks a referendum promised in the ceasefire agreement. However, Morocco says that it will not allow more than autonomy for the region.
On Tuesday, an independence movement official told Reuters that Morocco’s UN expulsion was putting the ceasefire at risk.
"Morocco wants to clear the table, erase it all and have nothing to do with the mission. They want to show the question of the referendum is done and doesn't exist," Mohamed Said Ould Salek, foreign minister to the movement's Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic said.
"When Morocco expels civilian staff it puts the ceasefire at risk, because the ceasefire and the referendum are two inseparable twins. You kill one and you kill the other."
Salek also said there would be no other option left than “war”, “if the UN does not force Morocco to accept MINURSO in its proper composition and mandate.”