U.N. chief disappointed by Security Council on Western Sahara: spokesman

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was disappointed by the Security Council’s failure to take a strong stand in a dispute between him and Morocco over Western Sahara and will raise it with council members soon, Ban’s spokesman said on Friday.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses a news conference at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The government of Morocco last week accused Ban of no longer being neutral in the conflict and on Thursday ordered the United Nations to cut 84 international staff from its Western Sahara mission, MINURSO.

The 15-nation council discussed the crisis for several hours on Thursday. Afterwards, Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins of Angola, council president this month, said members had voiced their concern but agreed to individually approach Morocco to ensure the situation is “evolving in a positive manner.”

In a cautiously worded rebuke of the council, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric made clear Ban’s disappointment.

“It would have been better had we received clearer words from the president of the Security Council,” he said, without elaborating.

Dujarric said that Ban would raise the issue in his monthly luncheon with council members, who will be discussing it again behind closed doors later on Friday.

Diplomats said the council members that argued against a strong statement of support of Ban and in favor of countries dealing with the issue bilaterally included Morocco’s traditional ally France along with Spain, Egypt and Senegal. Council statements need to be unanimous.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault spoke on the telephone with Ban about the issue and offered to mediate between him and Rabat to reduce tensions, a Western diplomat said. “Paris did not want to add fuel to the fire by taking sides,” the diplomat said.

The controversy over Ban’s comments is Morocco’s worst dispute with the United Nations since 1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and established the mission.

Rabat last week criticized Ban for his use of the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s annexation of the region at the center of a struggle since 1975, when it took over from colonial power Spain.

Earlier this month, Ban visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them and fought a war against Morocco until the ceasefire. Ban also accused Morocco of supporting a demonstration against him that he described as a personal attack.

The Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front wants a referendum, including over the question of independence, but Rabat says it will only grant semi-autonomy.

The Polisario’s U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari told reporters on Thursday that Morocco’s goal was to shut down MINURSO, which he said “would mean the shortest way to the resumption of war.”

Additional reporting by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool