Morocco has asked the U.N. to withdraw 84 international staff from its Western Sahara mission after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon made "unacceptable" remarks about the territory, an official Moroccan source said on Thursday.
The furor over Ban\’s comments is the country\’s worst dispute with the United Nations since 1991, when the U.N. brokered a 1991 ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and sent in the MINURSO 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.
The U.N. chief said he wanted to restart negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
The official source said Morocco had handed the United Nations a list of 84 staff it wants withdrawn.
"We retain the right to take other measures later if we believe they are appropriate," said the source.
A United Nations spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to a UN factsheet dated April 2015, there are 482 personnel in the mission, including 226 uniformed officers and 246 civilians, of which 84 are international staff.
Morocco\’s government said on Tuesday it would cut staff at MINURSO and threatened to pull out of U.N. peacekeeping missions in protest at Ban\’s comments.
It said it would also stop its voluntary financial contribution and significantly reduce the "civil and political" component of the mission. The Moroccan source, who declined to be named, said on Thursday the military and peacekeeping part of the mission would not be affected.
Ban has postponed plans to visit Morocco, his spokesman said on Wednesday. The Moroccan source said the visit had not been on the agenda since his last remarks.
Ban\’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday the loss of Morocco\’s contributions to MINURSO, which are worth some $3 million out of a total budget of $53 million, would have an impact on the mission.