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Leaders of Morocco's breakaway Western Saharan region threatened the country's government with a return to war last night as the two sides escalated a dispute sparked by remarks made by the United Nation's top diplomat. The leaders of the Polisario Front,...

Polisario Front threatens 'war' with Morocco as dispute over UN mission to Western Sahara escalates

Leaders of Morocco's breakaway Western Saharan region threatened the country's government with a return to war last night as the two sides escalated a dispute sparked by remarks made by the United Nation's top diplomat. The leaders of the Polisario Front,...

Polisario Front threatens 'war' with Morocco as dispute over UN mission to Western Sahara escalates

Leaders of Morocco's breakaway Western Saharan region threatened the country's government with a return to war last night as the two sides escalated a dispute sparked by remarks made by the United Nation's top diplomat.

The leaders of the Polisario Front, which has pushed for independence from Morocco for more than 40 years, said they would have "no other option but war" if Morocco did not backtrack on a decision to shut down part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the disputed region.

The warning from Mohamed Said Ould Salek, the foreign minister of the Front's political wing, came in response to Morocco's expulsion of 84 civilian staff members on Sunday in protest over comments on the Western Sahara issue by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General.

During a visit to Western Sahara earlier this month, Mr Ban used the word "occupation" to describe Moroccan's annexation of the territory in 1975. It led Rabat to accuse him of abandoning his neutrality in the dispute.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) arrives at the Sahrawi refugee camp of Rabouni, 20 kms south of the Algerian city of Tindouf in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Ban visited a camp for Sahrawi refugees, administered by the Polisario Front separatist group, as part of a tour of West and North Africa  Photo: AFP

While the normally-mild mannered UN leader has denied taking sides, such is the sensitivity over the four-decade long dispute that it has already escalated into one of the worst flare-ups since a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

As well as expelling the UN officials to the mission, which goes by the acronym of MINURSO, Morocco has also told the UN to shut a military liaison office in the southern town of Dakla. It has also withheld $3 million of funding to the mission.

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There are fears that without the peacekeeping mechanism properly in place, a conflict that claimed as many as 20,000 leaves could rekindle again.

Diplomats also worry that Morocco - a partner with the West in the war on terror - could be distracted from its problems with home-grown jihadists, some of whom have been linked to the terror cell behind the attacks in Brussels and Paris.

Western Saharan foreign minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek   Photo: AFP

Mr Salek called on the UN Security Council to put pressure on Rabat to respect the mandate of its Western Saharan mission.

"Morocco has to assume its responsibility for the risk," he said. "If the UN does not force Morocco to accept MINURSO in its proper composition and mandate, there is no other option but war.”

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Morocco has lobbied for years to get the wider world to back its own plans to grant Western Sahara autonomy but as part of the kingdom. There are suspicions that Rabat has used Mr Moon's comments as a pretext to shape the terms of the debate.

Moroccan protesters hold placards and shout slogans in the capital Rabat  Photo: AFP

Most diplomats believe a return to war is still unlikely, not least because the Polisario Front is no longer any kind of match for the modern Moroccan armed forces.

A former Spanish colony, the Western Sahara region is home to around half a million mainly indigenous Saharawi people. The Polisario's political wing, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), seeks world recognition as an independent state.

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