Morocco’s government said on Tuesday it would cut staff at the United Nations’ Western Sahara mission and threatened to pull out of United Nations peacekeeping missions after “unacceptable” comments by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the disputed region.
The statement came on Tuesday after Ban met with Morocco’s foreign minister to express his anger over remarks by the Moroccan government and a demonstration in Rabat which he said was a personal attack following his Western Sahara comments.
Rabat accused Ban last week of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, saying he used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the region that has been at the center of a dispute for decades.
Ban had visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for ethnic Sahrawis, who say Western Sahara belongs to them and fought a guerrilla war against Morocco until a U.N. ceasefire in 1991. Ban said he wanted to restart negotiations over the dispute.
“Following the unacceptable declarations and inadmissible actions from the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during his recent visit to the region, the royal government of Morocco has decided on immediate measures,” the statement said.
It said it would significantly reduce a large part of the “civil and political” component of the U.N. mission known as MINURSO, stop its voluntary contribution to the mission and look to pull Moroccan contingents from U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Ban’s spokesman did not have an immediate comment. But earlier on Tuesday U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said after Ban’s statement on the meeting with the foreign minister that there had been communications between senior Moroccan officials and U.N. officials.
The dispute over the Western Sahara region in the northwest edge of Africa has dragged on since Morocco took control over most of it after the withdrawal of former colonial power Spain.
The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to the Sahrawis, fought a war against Morocco until the ceasefire, but the two sides have since been deadlocked.
Polisario, backed by Morocco’s regional rival and neighbor Algeria and a number of other African states, wants a referendum promised in the ceasefire agreement on the region’s fate. Morocco has said it will not offer more than autonomy for the region, which is rich in phosphates and possibly offshore oil and gas.