RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco’s government has accused U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, saying he used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the region.
The long-running dispute over the desert region in the northwest corner of Africa has festered since Morocco took control over most of it in 1975 following the withdrawal of former colonial power Spain.
The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to ethnic Sahrawis, waged a guerrilla war until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991, but the two sides have been deadlocked since particularly over a referendum on its future.
Ban said last week he would restart U.N. efforts to reach a solution after visiting camps in southern Algeria for the Polasario Front leadership and refugees who fled the conflict.
The Moroccan government said Ban had used the word “occupation” to describe Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara in 1975.
“The kingdom of Morocco has noticed ... the Secretary General has dropped his neutrality and impartiality and has showed a guilty indulgence with a puppet state without attributes, territory, population, nor a recognized flag,” a statement from the Moroccan government said.
“The use of such terminology has no legal nor political basis and it is an insult to the Moroccan government and people,” the statement, carried by state news agency MAP late on Tuesday, said.
Polisario, backed by Morocco’s regional rival and neighbour Algeria and a number of other African states, wants to hold the vote promised in the ceasefire deal on the region’s fate.
Morocco says it will not offer more than autonomy for the region, rich in phosphates and possibly offshore oil and gas.
Polisario’s self-declared Arab Sahrawi Republic (SADR) has been recognised by some countries, mainly from the African Union, but none of the Western powers recognise it.
Thousands of the Sahrawi refugees, who fled the fighting in Western Sahara, have been living in mud brick houses in the harsh Tindouf area in southern Algeria for some 40 years.
Morocco’s king late last year insisted only the autonomy plan was acceptable. Rabat invests heavily there, hoping to calm social unrest and independence claims, and in February announced a $1.85 billion investment plan for the region.
Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi: editing by Patrick Markey/Jeremy Gaunt