UNITED NATIONS (AP) — United Nations civilian staff have begun returning to the peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara, signaling the apparent end of a dispute sparked by the U.N. chief's use of the word "occupation" to describe Morocco's annexation of the territory in 1975.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday the first batch of civilian peacekeepers landed in Morocco on Wednesday evening and that additional staff would be returning in the coming days.
So far, four staff members have returned to Morocco, according to an official with the U.N. peacekeeping department who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak with the press.
"We expect additional staff members to be returning in the coming days. I think we've had what I would call constructive discussion with Morocco and it was agreed as a result of those discussions to restore full functionality of the peacekeeping mission through a gradual process," Dujarric said.
Morocco expelled more than 70 U.N. civilians linked to the peacekeeping mission in March to protest Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's perceived gaffe.
Diplomats warned the expulsion could set a dangerous precedent for the U.N.'s far-flung peacekeeping missions if it wasn't reversed. The Security Council approved a resolution in April calling on Morocco to restore the mission to full functionality.
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 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.