UN urges return to full operation of Western Sahara mission

AP News
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Posted: Apr 29, 2016 2:36 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council called Friday for the urgent return of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara to its full operation, a rebuke to Morocco which expelled most of the mission's civilian staff to protest a perceived slight by the U.N. secretary-general.

The vote on the resolution was 10-2 with three abstentions, reflecting the sharp division in the council between veto-wielding France, a strong ally of Morocco, countries supporting a referendum on Western Sahara with independence as an option, and those like the United States seeking to defuse tensions and restore the mission.

Those voting against or abstaining were angered that the resolution wasn't stronger and failed to condemn Morocco's action, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others warned could become a precedent for the U.N.'s far-flung peacekeeping missions if it wasn't reversed.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO to monitor it and help prepare a referendum on the territory's future, which has never taken place.

Morocco considers the mineral-rich region its "southern provinces" and has proposed wide-ranging autonomy, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population — as called for in U.N. resolutions, all of which were reaffirmed in the resolution adopted Friday.

Last month, Morocco expelled more than 70 U.N. civilians carrying out political activities, de-mining operations and other activities after the secretary-general used the word "occupation" in talking about Western Sahara following a visit to a camp for refugees from the region who have been in Algeria for over 40 years.

The U.S.-drafted resolution expresses regret at MINURSO's inability to fully carry out its mandate following Morocco's expulsions. This language is slightly stronger than the initial draft which only expressed concern — but it wasn't tough enough for five council members.

Venezuela and Uruguay voted against the resolution and Russia, New Zealand and Angola abstained.

The resolution asks the secretary-general to report within 90 days on whether the mission's operations have been restored "to full functionality," and if not "to consider how best to facilitate achievement of this goal."

The Polisario Front's U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari called the resolution "a step in the right direction, but is not enough."

"Three months to verify what is the quality of the cooperation of Morocco is too much. These people were expelled in two days. They can come back in two days. Why three months?" he asked. "We blame France."

Morocco's U.N. Ambassador Omar Hilale wouldn't say when or if the country would allow the return of MINURSO's civilian staff, telling reporters the resolution "needs to be studied." He stressed the importance of MINURSO's "military component" and said the government is committed to providing for all the needs of the peacekeepers.