- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The United Nations said Monday that Morocco is now trying to expel military staff from the peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara days after ordering civilian staff to leave the country to protest remarks by U.N. secretary general during a recent visit.

Morocco ordered 84 international staff members in the Western Sahara mission to leave to protest Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” in describing the status of the vast mineral-rich territory during his first visit earlier this month to refugee camps in Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the region’s native inhabitants are known.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq disclosed that the U.N. mission, known as MINURSO, received a new request from Morocco to close its military liaison office in Dakhla in the coming days.

“We are seeing how to go about this, but this is also an issue on which the Security Council is being apprised,” he said, adding that Morocco’s actions threaten the future of the U.N. mission.

He accused Morocco of acting arbitrarily, needlessly escalating tensions, and acting against the U.N. Charter and its agreement on deploying the U.N. mission. He expressed hope “that Morocco gets the message that this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated.”

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 Polisario Front foreign minister, Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, declared in a statement Sunday that Morocco’s “irresponsible” action means “the end of the mission for which MINURSO was created.”

“Through this decision, Morocco stirs up tensions and pushes Sahrawi people to take up arms again,” Salek warned.

Haq said that if the U.N. leaves “there would be a real risk of return to heightened tensions and possibly even conflict.”

He said U.N. officials also warned the council that unless it takes action to support the peacekeeping mission that it mandated the stability of all U.N. peacekeeping operations are at risk.

Security Council ambassadors met privately Monday morning to discuss Western Sahara ahead of their monthly lunch with the secretary-general where the dispute was high on the agenda.

Haq said the U.N. was continuing discussions with Morocco and other concerned countries “to make sure tensions can be de-escalated.”

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