WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has declared its support for the threatened U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory of Western Sahara after Morocco took steps to reduce its size and terminate $3 million in funding.
At the same time, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement released Friday night that Washington considers an autonomy plan put forth by Morocco for the territory to be "serious, realistic and credible."
Kirby said the Moroccan plan "represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity."
He reiterated that the U.S. continues to back the peacekeeping mission and "the U.N.-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually-agreed solution to the conflict in the Western Sahara. "
Kirby's statement comes at a time of an escalating dispute between Morocco and the United Nations over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in 1975. Morocco fought Polisario Front rebels seeking independence for Western Sahara until the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym MINURSO, was established to monitor the cease-fire and help organize a referendum on the future of the vast, mineral-rich territory. But the referendum has never taken place because of disputes over voter lists.
Morocco considers Western Sahara its "southern provinces" and has offered the region autonomy, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population.
Morocco accused U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of bias in the conflict after he used the word "occupation" to describe the territorial status of Western Sahara during his first visit to refugee camps in Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the region's native inhabitantsare known.
Morocco responded by organizing a march by up to 1 million people through the capital, Rabat, last Sunday.
Ban's spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Ban told Morocco's foreign minister on Tuesday that the huge demonstration in Rabat was "disrespectful" to the secretary-general and the United Nations.
The following day the Moroccan government ordered 84 international staff in the Western Sahara peacekeeping mission to withdraw and reiterated the country's decision to terminate $3 million in funding for the U.N. operation to protest Ban's remarks.
Morocco's Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar told a news conference for French and Arab media on Thursday that "like all the countries in the world, we do not accept injustice or insult wherever it comes from." He said the decisions about MINURSO were "irreversible," but he said "Morocco has left pending other decisions." They include a threat to withdraw its 2,300 troops from all U.N. peacekeeping operations.
The Polisario Front's U.N. representative warned Thursday that "the shortest way to the resumption of war" is if the U.N. ends its peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory.
The Security Council met behind closed doors Thursday afternoon to hear a briefing from U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman and discuss Morocco's actions.
U.N. diplomats said Feltman told the council that the U.N. wants "cancellation or mitigation" of Morocco's punitive actions against MINURSO, a return to a normal relationship, and a quick resumption of negotiations on Western Sahara's future. — and he stressed that the U.N. was counting on the council's "unified support." But there was a total lack of consensus among the 15 members, with France, Egypt, Senegal, Spain and Japan supporting Morocco, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private.
Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, the current council president, told reporters afterward that the council "expressed serious concerns" and decided that the 15 members should engage with Morocco "to make sure that the situation is stabilized."