ALGIERS (Reuters) - Morocco is putting a ceasefire over disputed Western Sahara at risk by expelling United Nations staffers there and trying to scuttle a long-delayed referendum over the future of the territory, an independence movement official said on Tuesday.
Dozens of U.N. staffers pulled out of the Western Sahara mission, known as MINURSO, on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave because U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the term “occupation” during a visit to the region.
It is Rabat’s worst dispute with the U.N. since 1991, when it brokered a ceasefire. Morocco took over most of Western Sahara in 1975 from colonial Spain, starting a guerilla war with the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front who say the desert territory on Africa’s northwest belongs to them.
“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, told Reuters.
“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.”
Morocco complained Ban lost his neutrality when he used the word occupation to describe Morocco’s annexation during his visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria earlier this month. Rabat called it an insult to the Moroccan people.
U.N. spokesman dismissed suggestions the UN was partial in the dispute, saying Ban referred to occupation related to the Sahrawi refugees being unable to return home under satisfactory governance conditions.
MINURSO established the mission for peacekeeping and organizing the referendum including on the question of independence, but negotiations between Rabat and Polisario over how to hold the vote have been deadlocked.
On Monday, Morocco took a step further, asking the United Nations to close a military liaison office in Dakla. Ban had planned to raise the decision with the U.N. Security Council, and U.N. spokesman warned it risked a return to conflict.
Salek said Polisario has called on the U.N. Security Council to guarantee the U.N. mission is returned and get Morocco to respect its mandate rather than returning to the same situation that started the confrontation.
“Morocco has to assume its responsibility for the risk. If the U.N. does not force Morocco to accept MINURSO in its proper composition and mandate, there is no other option but war,” the minister said. “We are waiting to see the reaction of the Security Council.”
Rabat accused Ban earlier this month of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara dispute after the terms he used to describe its annexation of the region in 1975.
Ban had also visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people calling for a restart to negotiations for them to return to the Western Sahara.
Morocco’s King Mohammed has offered a plan for autonomy for the region and invested heavily in the territory as a way to ease tensions and defuse independence claims. Polisario says the referendum must be held on self-determination for the Sahrawis.
Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Richard Balmforth