By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that Morocco may have been spying on the world body's monitoring force in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and hampering its ability to function, according to a new report obtained by Reuters.
Ban's 28-page assessment comes after the latest round of U.N.-mediated talks last month between Morocco, the Polisario Front independence movement, Algeria and Mauritania on the future of Western Sahara failed to make any real progress. Previous rounds held during the past five years ended similarly.
In his report to the U.N. Security Council, Ban complained that the U.N. force in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, is "unable to exercise fully its peacekeeping monitoring, observation and reporting functions, or avail of the authority to reverse the erosion" of its ability to function.
He urged the 15-nation council to assist him "in reasserting the mandated role of MINURSO, upholding peacekeeping standards and (U.N.) neutrality, and ensuring that the minimum conditions for the successful operation of the Mission are met."
Among the difficulties the force has been facing, Ban wrote, is what U.N. diplomats told Reuters was Moroccan spying on the U.N. force.
"There were ... indications that the confidentiality of communications between MINURSO headquarters and New York was, at least on occasion, compromised," Ban's report said.
Morocco's U.N. mission did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Morocco says Western Sahara, a sparsely-populated tract of desert that has phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas, should come under its sovereignty, while the Polisario says it is an independent state.
The Polisario waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces until the United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 with the understanding that a referendum would be held on the fate of the territory. The referendum never took place and attempts to reach a lasting deal since then have foundered.
Ban describes other difficulties MINURSO is facing in the Moroccan-controlled territory west of the Berm - a 1,500 km (940 mile) sand wall that separates a 100,000 strong Moroccan army from over 10,000 Polisario soldiers.
While MINURSO's civilian staff have freedom of movement west of the Berm, Ban said access to the local population "is controlled (by Moroccan authorities), which has an effect on interaction with the full spectrum of local interlocutors."
The language in that section was watered down from a previous, more dramatic version. The earlier draft, also obtained by Reuters, said that U.N. personnel's movements were "closely monitored with the consequent chilling effect" on its interaction with the local residents.
Several council diplomats told Reuters the U.N. amended the text in response to pressure from temporary council member Morocco, which has close relations with France, its former colonial master and a permanent veto-wielding council member.
Polisario's representative in New York, Ahmed Boukhari, wrote to U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous to complain about the revisions, which he blamed on Morocco and described as a "fatal coup to U.N. credibility," according to a copy of his message obtained by Reuters.
In the report, Ban asked the council to renew the mandate of the monitoring force, which expires later this month, for another year. He also urged it to increase the size of the 230-strong force by adding 15 military observers to improve its ability to monitor the truce on the territory.
The renewal of the MINURSO mandate marks an annual battle in the council, with Morocco backed by France and Polisario supported by African nations. Among the Polisario's staunchest supporters on the council this year is South Africa.
Polisario has long asked for MINURSO's mandate to be broadened to include the task of reporting on what it says are human rights abuses by Morocco. It is an idea that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has endorsed.
But the council has never formally approved the idea, which the Polisario says is due to Moroccan and French opposition.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Paul Simao)