UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his envoys are ready "to spare no effort" to restore the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara to its full operation and end the controversy with Morocco — as called for by the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations said Monday.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said part of the next steps to achieve this was his reiteration that Ban Ki-moon's trip to the region in early March was not meant "to offend or express hostility" toward Morocco, which annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and considers it as its "southern provinces."
Morocco expelled almost all of the U.N. mission's civilian staff after the secretary-general used the word "occupation" following a visit to a camp for Western Sahara refugees in Algeria, who have spent decades waiting for a U.N. referendum on the future of the vast mineral-rich territory. Many support the Polisario Front independence movement which fought Morocco after it annexed the vast mineral-rich territory until the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991.
The Security Council authorized the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, to monitor the cease-fire and help organize the referendum, but it has never taken place because of disputes over voter lists and Morocco's insistence that autonomy is the only option.
Morocco has been pressing for an apology from the secretary-general over the "occupation" comment. Dujarric's statement Monday wasn't an apology, but it did express regret.
He stressed that the secretary-general used the word "occupation" once as "a spontaneous personal reaction" to his sadness at the harsh conditions that the refugees he visited in Algeria have endured for decades.
"We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked, especially since the main purpose of the secretary-general's trip was to focus on a mutually acceptable way forward that would, among other things, end the tribulations of the refugees," Dujarric said.
"He has not and will not take sides on the issue of Western Sahara," the spokesman said. "We seek to encourage the parties to negotiate without precondition and in good faith to find 'a mutually acceptable political solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara' which is as the Security Council has requested."
Dujarric reminded Morocco that it is required under the U.N. Charter to carry out Security Council decisions.
What is important now, he said, is to overcome "the current difficulties" and enable the peacekeeping mission to resume full operation — in "a constructive, cooperative and comprehensive manner" as the Security Council requested last Thursday, Dujarric said.
But Morocco's Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said earlier that day that the decision to expel the 73 civilian staff members is "irreversible." And the Polisario Front's U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, warned again that "the shortest way towards a war is the dismantling of MINURSO."