RABAT (Reuters) - Dozens of United Nations international staffers pulled out of their Western Sahara mission on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave because of remarks by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the disputed territory.
This week Morocco ordered the United Nations to withdraw 84 international civilian personnel from its peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO. It said this was a response to Ban's "unacceptable" remarks.
Rabat accused Ban earlier this month of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara dispute when he used the word "occupation" to describe its annexation of the region in 1975, when Morocco took over from colonial power Spain.
The United Nations said it had three days to remove the 84 civilian staff from Western Sahara.
The controversy over Ban's comments is Morocco's worst dispute with the United Nations since 1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire to end a war over the Western Sahara and established the mission.
MAP state news agency said a "significant number" of U.N. staffers had left Laayoune airport on U.N. aircraft and commercial flights to Las Palmas in Spain.
A Moroccan official source said 73 U.N. staffers had left, 10 would leave in the afternoon and one would remain for now. The source added the 84th staff member would stay for now because she is pregnant.
The mission currently has 242 military personnel, 84 international civilian staff, 157 national staff and 12 volunteers.
Morocco said it would also stop its voluntary contribution to the mission estimated at $3 million (out of $53 million), according to the UN.
Neither military personnel, nor the ceasefire monitoring units, nor the head of the mission are affected by the cuts.
Earlier this month, Ban visited refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawi people, who say Western Sahara belongs to them. They fought a war against Morocco until the 1991 ceasefire.
Their Polisario Front wants a referendum on independence, but Rabat says it will only grant autonomy.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Patrick Markey and Stephen Powell)