Morocco cutting support for UN Western Sahara force

2016-03-16 22:01
Western Sahara

Western Sahara

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Brussels - The Moroccan government is reducing its staff and support for the UN peacekeeping operation in the Western Sahara, to protest UN chief Ban Ki-moon's recent comments about the disputed territory.

Morocco also threatened to withdraw its troops - currently numbering 2 308 - from all UN peacekeeping operations.

The unusual move is the latest step in an escalating dispute between Morocco and the UN chief. Ban recently visited Saharan refugee camps and referred to Morocco's "occupation" of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in 1975. Morocco regarded the term as an insult.

Moroccans held a huge protest on Sunday over the comments, organized by the country's leading political parties, labour unions and NGOs. The next day, on the orders of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar went to the UN to meet with Ban, asking him to "publicly clarify" his position, the Foreign Ministry said.

Ban's spokesperson said the UN chief considers the attacks "disrespectful to him and to the United Nations." He renewed a call for resumed peace negotiations.

Morocco remains angry, and late on Tuesday the Foreign Ministry announced a reduction of its staff in the MINURSO peacekeeping mission and an end to the "voluntary contribution Morocco has accorded to the maintenance of MINURSO."

Moroccan funding will not, "for the moment," be affected, according to Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment on the issue.

The status of the Western Sahara is among the most sensitive topics in the North African kingdom. Morocco considers the vast mineral-rich Western Sahara as its "southern provinces" and fiercely defends against anything it considers to be threats to its territorial integrity.

The row intensified as the Moroccan monarch visited Russia, a potential ally in the dispute.

Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario wants self-determination through a referendum for the local population.

Polisario

Established in 1991 after years of fighting between the Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front independence movement, MINURSO (the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) lists 162 local civilian staff as of last year, of a total of 482 personnel members. MINURSO is currently headquartered in the city of Laayoune, the administrative capital of the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

"The Kingdom of Morocco expresses its indignation at seeing the Secretary General challenge the legitimate and democratic right of a people to freely express their opinions and reactions," the Moroccan government statement said.

A member of Polisario accused the Moroccan government of resorting to "pressure and blackmail." Mohamed Sidati, the group's delegate minister for Europe, said in a statement carried on its official news agency, Sahara Press Service, that the Moroccan move is a "sign of panic."

Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that the anti-MINURSO measures "can only undermine Morocco's international standing."

He noted a series of past actions taken by Morocco to affirm what it considers its sovereignty over Western Sahara. Most recently, Morocco suspended contacts with the European Union after a December ruling by the European Court of Justice annulling a fisheries and agriculture agreement between Morocco and the EU because it included Western Sahara territory.

Read more on:    un  |  minurso  |  ban ki-moon  |  western sahara  |  morocco  |  north africa

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