RABAT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Morocco’s decision to reduce United Nations staff at the Western Sahara mission is sovereign and irreversible, but the government is committed to military cooperation with the U.N. to guarantee the ceasefire there, the foreign minister said on Thursday.
Morocco this month ordered the U.N. to pull out dozens of civilian staffers and close a military liaison office for the MINURSO peacekeeping mission after criticizing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for using the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s annexation of the disputed territory.
“Our decision is sovereign and irreversible,” Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar told reporters in Rabat.
Morocco took over most of the territory in 1975 from colonial Spain. That started a guerrilla war with the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front who say the desert territory on Africa’s northwest belongs to them.
The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and sent in its MINURSO mission, which consists of military and civilian staff, to monitor the ceasefire and organize a referendum over the region’s future. But deadlock has delayed the vote for years.
U.N. officials had repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council to publicly voice its support for Ban and MINURSO, something the 15-nation body was unable to do until late on Thursday in New York.
Rabat has accused Ban of dropping the U.N.’s neutral stance on the dispute, which U.N. officials deny, saying the secretary-general’s remarks were merely an emotional response after meeting with Sahrawi refugees.
Angola’s U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, president of the council this month, told reporters council members “expressed serious concerns about developments” in Western Sahara and took “due note” of U.N. fears about the potential negative impact of the expulsion of personnel on MINURSO.
The council did not explicitly order Morocco to reverse its decisions or address Ban’s use of the word “occupation.”
However, Martins said council members “stressed the importance of addressing in a constructive, comprehensive and cooperative manner the circumstances that led to the current situation so that MINURSO may resume its full capacity to carry out its mandate.”
Diplomats had blamed the council’s days of silence on the issue on Morocco’s traditional ally France, along with Spain, Egypt and Senegal.
Mezouar said military contacts with MINURSO had not been disrupted and Morocco was committed to cooperation to ensure the continuity of the ceasefire.
Mezouar said Morocco was ready for serious talks that would not ignore the reasons for the current situation.
Polisario representatives say Morocco is putting a ceasefire at risk by expelling U.N. staffers and trying to scuttle the referendum, including on the question of independence. Morocco has offered an autonomy plan as the only way forward.
Writing by Patrick Markey and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Ruth Pitchford, Mark Potter and Diane Craft