Morocco demands U.N. cut 84 staff from Western Sahara mission

By Louis Charbonneau and Aziz El Yaakoubi

By Louis Charbonneau and Aziz El Yaakoubi

UNITED NATIONS/RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco ordered the United Nations on Thursday to pull 84 international staff from its Western Sahara mission after accusing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon of no longer being neutral in a conflict over the disputed territory.

The Moroccan government, however, reversed a previously announced decision to withdraw all of its troops from U.N. peacekeeping missions worldwide.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that Morocco said the United Nations and the African Union have three days to remove 84 civilian staff from Western Sahara.

Dujarric said, "All of these measures would seriously impede the functioning" of the mission known as MINURSO, or the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.

U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman briefed theSecurity Council behind closed doors. He said the Moroccan ambassador had sent him a text message announcing that the 3-day deadline had been extended to "within the days to come," diplomats at the meeting told Reuters.

The staff to be withdrawn includes security personnel, political officers, and de-mining personnel.

Speaking to reporters after the council meeting, 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."

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 accused Ban last week of no longer being neutral in the conflict, criticizing 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 1991 ceasefire.

Their Polisario Front wants a referendum, including over the question of independence, but Rabat says it will only grant semi-autonomy.

Three of the people on the list submitted by the Moroccan mission to be withdrawn from MINURSO are from the African Union while the rest are U.N. staff, the U.N. press department said. The mission currently has 242 military personnel, 85 international civilian staff, 157 national staff and 12 volunteers.

Neither military personnel nor the head of the mission are affected by the cuts.

Speaking to reporters through an interpreter at the Moroccan U.N. mission in Manhattan, Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar complained of Ban's "stubbornness."

After speaking with members of the Security Council, Mezouar said Morocco had "decided not to withdraw its troops" from U.N. peacekeeping missions. He said Rabat was considering other possible actions but did not elaborate.

Ban has said he wants to restart stalled negotiations between Morocco and Polisario Front.

Ban canceled plans to visit Morocco, his spokesman said on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold)