UN official: Western Sahara mission threatened with closure

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A U.N. official warned Wednesday that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara will have to shut down unless Morocco reverses its unprecedented expulsion order.

The official, who is familiar with the latest controversy over Western Sahara, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants the Security Council to take action to protect the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO.

This would also send a message to other countries hosting peacekeeping operations that such actions won’t be tolerated, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Morocco ordered the expulsion of 84 international civilian staff members with MINURSO and closed a military liaison office to protest the U.N. chief’s use of the word “occupation” in describing the status of the vast mineral-rich territory during a recent visit to camps in Algeria for Western Sahara refugees.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991, which the peacekeeping force has been monitoring.

Morocco considers Western Sahara as its “southern provinces” and has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population — as called for in U.N. resolutions. This hasn’t occurred because of disputes over voter lists.

The official said Morocco’s recent actions have heightened tensions, set “a very bad precedent for other peacekeeping operations,” and created a potential vacuum that could be exploited.

The secretary-general wants to avoid a security vacuum in the region with the departure of MINURSO, the official said.

“I say MINURSO’s departure because unless something changes over the next few months the military component will not be able to operate,” the official said, because it won’t have the logistical and administrative support it needs.

The U.N. Security Council initially sought to try to calm the situation through individual contacts between the 15 members and Morocco, but so far there has been no change. Members have been considering a possible joint statement but there are divisions among council members and whether they can be overcome remains to be seen.