Reuters International

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) logo is seen during a meeting in Manama, Bahrain April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Gulf Arab rulers back fellow monarchy Morocco in its row with the United Nations over the disputed region of Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia's SPA news agency reported, one of the worst diplomatic crises over the territory since a 1991 ceasefire.

Morocco expelled dozens of U.N. staff from the mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month referred to the North African nation's 1975 annexation of the region from Spain as an "occupation."

Rabat said its decision was irreversible, but that it was committed to military cooperation with the U.N. to guarantee the ceasefire. Ban has recommended extending MINURSO's mandate for a year, warning that the conflict there was in danger of reigniting.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, chairing a summit of rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, issued a statement supporting his long-time North African ally as he welcomed Morocco's King Mohammed on a short visit to the kingdom.

"We stress our mutual solidarity and support for all the political and security issues which concern your brotherly nation, foremost among them the Moroccan Sahara (Western Sahara) issue, and we reject completely any prejudice to the higher interests of Morocco," the statement said.

The controversy over Ban's comment, made during a visit to refugee camps for Sahrawi people, is the worst between the U.N. and Morocco since 1991, when the international body brokered a ceasefire to end a war between Rabat and rebels fighting for independence in Western Sahara. MINURSO was established at that time.

The Arab News newspaper quoted King Mohammed as saying: "The security and stability of the Gulf states is in Morocco's interest. We have similar views on common issues which increase the depth of the ties between our nations."

The Arab News reported King Mohammed as saying that Ban had been misled by his advisers.

The Sahrawi people's Polisario Front say the desert territory on Africa's northwest belongs to them.

(Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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