Ban Ki-moon United nations.jpg
Photograph: EPA/JUSTIN LANE

Morocco has told the United Nations that it would reduce the presence of the UN mission to Western Sahara and even consider withdrawing its troops from all UN missions in response to recent comments made by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the UN said Wednesday.

The diplomatic firestorm broke out after Ban, who recently visited camps of refugees from Western Sahara in neighbouring Algeria, reportedly called Morocco's control of the disputed territory "occupation" and suggested that a referendum should determine its fate.

Morocco rejected Ban's characterization of the situation, calling it "a legal absurdity and a serious political error" and urged the UN chief to publicly clarify his position, according to a statement by the Moroccan mission to the UN.

In a letter sent Tuesday, Morocco notified the UN that because Ban had failed to adequately clarify the situation, the country would significantly reduce the number of international civilian staff with the mission in Western Sahara, Stephane Dujarric, Ban's spokesman, said.

This includes the majority of the political presence of the UN mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), he added.

Morocco considers Western Sahara to be part of its territory.

Morocco will also stop its voluntary contribution to the mission, which amounts to about 3 million dollars for primarily food and accommodation.

The country said it would even consider withdrawing all of its more than 2,300 peacekeepers currently deployed with three other UN missions.

"If all this came to pass, we obviously regret the decision by Morocco to go through with this," Dujarric said.

"The secretary general said what he said, he does not walk away from it. He expressed regret ... that there was a misunderstanding of the use of the word, but that's it."

Western Sahara has been a point of contention since Morocco took over most of the region in 1975 after Spain withdrew from it.

Western Sahara's Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria, demands a referendum for the area's independence. However, Morocco has refused the demand, favouring autonomy instead.

The UN has so far failed to mediate a solution for the long-standing dispute.

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