By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations has closed its military liaison office in the disputed territory of Western Sahara as demanded by Morocco amid an escalating dispute over remarks by the U.N. chief, a U.N. spokesman said on Tuesday.
Dozens of U.N. international staffers pulled out of the Western Sahara mission, known as MINURSO, after Morocco demanded they leave because Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the term "occupation" during a recent visit.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said Morocco demanded the closure of the U.N. Dakhla military liaison office. It was Rabat's latest retaliatory step.
"This was completed yesterday," Haq said. "The three military observers based there were relocated to the Asward team site, on the western part of the territory, controlled by Morocco. Morocco's request to close the liaison office in Dakhla is the first request directly targeting the military component."
He said the liaison office was the U.N.'s "face-to-face counterpart to the Royal Moroccan Army" and handled all discussions on the ceasefire.
Haq said the relocation made direct dialogue with the army "more difficult."
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric chided the Security Council on Friday for not issuing a strong statement of support for him and MINURSO in the dispute, something council diplomats blamed on Morocco's traditional ally France, along with Spain, Egypt and Senegal.
Ban and the 15-nation council had their monthly lunch meeting on Monday. Several diplomats told Reuters that Ban left with the impression that a statement of support for him was imminent. But no such statement was issued.
Haq repeated Ban's desire for a statement of support from the council.
"In enough time, a lack of a statement can indeed be interpreted as a statement of its very own," he said.
The controversy over Ban's comments is Morocco's worst dispute with the U.N. since 1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and established the mission.
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 1975 annexation of the region, 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 Morocco says it will only grant autonomy. Polisario says Rabat's moves against the U.N. jeopardize the ceasefire.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Dan Grebler)