By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Morocco has asked the United Nations to close a military liaison office in the disputed territory of Western Sahara as a spat between Rabat and the U.N. chief over his recent remarks escalates, a U.N. spokesman said on Monday.
Dozens of U.N. international staffers pulled out of their Western Sahara mission, known as MINURSO, on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the term "occupation" during a recent visit to the region.
"MINURSO has ... received a request to close its military liaison office in Dakhla in the coming days, which would be the first request directly targeting the military component," U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.
"There is no reason, none, for this escalation," he said, adding it would set a bad precedent for other missions if a single member state was permitted to interfere with a peacekeeping operation.
Without a properly functioning peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, Haq said there was a risk of a resumption of tensions and possibly even conflict.
Ban was meeting with Security Council members on Monday and he would raise Western Sahara, Haq said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric chided the council on Friday for not taking a strong stand in the dispute.
The controversy over Ban's comments is Morocco's worst dispute with the United Nations since 1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and established the mission.
Morocco had demanded last week that 81 U.N. international civilian staff and three African Union staff leave the mission.
Haq said 73 of the U.N. personnel were temporarily reassigned. He noted that 11 individuals that MINURSO ordered out of the mission no longer worked there.
Morocco had initially given the mission three days to withdraw the specified personnel, but later extended that to "within the coming days."
Rabat accused Ban earlier this month of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara dispute when he used the word "occupation" to describe its annexation of the region in 1975, when Morocco took over from colonial power Spain.
Ban had visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them. They fought a war against Morocco until the 1991 ceasefire.
The Polisario Front wants a referendum on independence, but Rabat says it will only grant autonomy.
Before the reductions, the mission had nearly 500 military and civilian personnel.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, editing by G Crosse)