Dozens of United Nations international staffers pulled out of their Western Sahara mission (MINURSO) on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave as a response to Ban Ki-Moon’s “unacceptable” remarks about the disputed territory.
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.
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.
Earlier this month, Ban visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them.
State news agency, MAP, said a "significant number" of UN staffers had left Laayoune airport on UN aircraft and commercial flights to Las Palmas in Spain.
A Moroccan official source said 73 UN staffers had left, 10 would leave in the afternoon and one would remain for now due to being pregnant.
Three of the people on the list submitted by the Moroccan mission to be withdrawn from MINURSO are from the African Union while the rest are UN staff, the UN press department said.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.
Morocco said it would also stop its voluntary contribution to the mission estimated at $3 million, according to the UN.
Neither military personnel, nor the ceasefire monitoring units, nor the head of the mission are affected by the cuts.
Speaking to reporters through an interpreter at the Moroccan UN mission in Manhattan on Thursday, 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.
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.