Morocco has ordered 84 international staff members in the UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara to leave within three days, in protest at recent comments by the UN secretary-general about the disputed territory. The UN called the move "unprecedented."
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Morocco's order was "in clear contradiction" of its international obligations and a challenge to the UN Security Council, which authorized the mission. The mission is meant to monitor a cease-fire and help organize a referendum on the Western Sahara's future. That referendum has never taken place.
The council was meeting behind closed doors today afternoon on Morocco's actions. Dujarric said UN peacekeeping officials are planning for a number of possible contingencies, including terminating the mission.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991.
Morocco considers the vast, mineral-rich 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. That hasn't occurred because of disputes over voter lists.
The latest dispute, which led to a massive protest in Morocco on Sunday against Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was sparked by his use of the term "occupation" in describing Western Sahara's territorial status during his visit this month to refugee camps in Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the region's native inhabitants are known.
According to the UN peacekeeping department, there are 85 international staffers in the UN mission, known as MINURSO. Morocco has ordered 81 of them to leave, along with three African Union observers.
UN Special Representative Kim Bolduc of Canada, who heads MINURSO, and other senior people were not on the list of those ordered out, the department said.
Trying to evacuate 84 people in three days makes it "virtually impossible for the mission over a sustained period to fulfill its mandate," Dujarric said. He called Morocco's order "unprecedented" because past issues with countries over UN peacekeeping missions were worked out within months, not days.