The African Union has warned that Morocco's expulsion of UN staff from Western Sahara could re-ignite a conflict in the disputed territory. The AU envoy has called for the renewal of the UN peace mission in the area.
Morocco's removal of United Nations peacekeeping staff sets "a very dangerous precedent" for UN missions, the African Union's special envoy for Western Sahara told the UN on Tuesday.
Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano - whose appointment as an envoy was rejected by Morocco in 2014 - spoke at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council just days before they are set to vote on renewing the UN peace mission MINURSO in Western Sahara.
"The Western Sahara problem may be seen as a small problem," Chissano (pictured above) told the council. "But let us not forget that a spark may put a forest into fire and we should avoid that to happen."
Last month, Morocco expelled 84 civilian UN staffers in retaliation to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's use of the term "occupation" to describe the situation in Western Sahara following his visit to a camp for refugees from the region.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975, sparking a war with a local independence movement called Polisario Front. After brokering a ceasefire in 1991, the UN established MINURSO to help monitor the ceasefire and organize a referendum - which has yet to take place.
Chissano urged that the people of Western Sahara must be given "the opportunity of choosing freely their destiny," adding that holding a referendum is the only solution to avoid conflict. He said renewing MINURSO's mandate "is a must" and that a new resolution should set a date for holding the referendum, as well as human rights monitoring.
During the council meeting, Chissano also pushed for a greater role for the African Union in the search for a solution, a proposal which Morocco has steadfastly rejected. Morocco is wary of AU bias due to its recognition of Western Sahara, which Morocco considers to be its "southern provinces."
"We would very much like to continue dialogue, even with Morocco, but Morocco may not want to dialogue with the brothers in Africa, which we think is wrong," Chissano said.
France, a close ally of Morocco, reportedly opposed any official briefing by the African Union envoy, leading Tuesday's meeting to be held in a UN conference room. Along with France, Morocco has also received support from Spain, Egypt, and Senegal in the dispute over the fate of the peace mission.
The ex-president also cautioned UN member states against signing trade agreements with Morocco that include resources in mineral-rich Western Sahara. The European Court of Justice struck down an EU farm deal with Morocco in December because it included the disputed territory.
rs/kms (AP, AFP)