UN chief concerned about Western Sahara tensions

United Nations – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday urged Morocco and the Polisario movement campaigning for the independence of Western Sahara to withdraw soldiers and fighters from a buffer strip who have sent tensions soaring.

Ban said he was "deeply concerned over the tense situation that has developed in the narrow buffer strip in southwestern Western Sahara" between the Moroccan berm that marks Rabat's area of control and the Mauritanian border.

He called on both sides "to suspend any action that alters that status quo and to withdraw all armed elements so as to prevent any further escalation", a statement from Ban's spokesman said.

The UN mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, will hold discussions with both sides to de-escalate tensions, he added.

Moroccan soldiers and Polisario fighters were "in close proximity to each other" in the buffer zone, said the UN statement.

A 1991 ceasefire brokered by the United Nations that ended 16 years of conflict between Morocco and the Polisario left the North African kingdom in control of all of the territory's main towns and the Polisario confined to a narrow strip of the desert interior.

The far south was left as a no-man's land with neither side having a permanent presence.

Ban stressed the need to respect the ceasefire arrangements that prohibit incursions in the buffer strip.

The Polisario Front had complained to Ban earlier this month of the Moroccan incursion, saying it violated the ceasefire agreement.

Morocco said that its operation in the Gargarate area north of Mauritania's second city Nouadhibou was aimed at stopping cross-border smuggling, particularly of second-hand and stolen vehicles.

Rabat maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of Morocco, despite UN resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination.

Relations between Morocco and the United Nations have been strained after Ban used the term "occupation" to describe the status of the disputed territory, during a recent visit to the region.

In March, Rabat expelled dozens of UN personnel in angry retaliation and only about 25 have been allowed since to return to MINURSO.

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