Reuters International

By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In a divisive vote, the United Nations Security Council on Friday extended for a year its peacekeeping mission in disputed Western Sahara and demanded urgent restoration of its full functionality after Morocco expelled international civilian staff.

Rabat's retaliation against the mission, known as MINURSO, came after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Morocco's 1975 annexation of Western Sahara after colonial power Spain's withdrawal as an "occupation." The U.N. has said the expulsions have crippled the mission

The U.S.-drafted resolution asked Ban to report back within 90 days on whether the mission's functionality had been restored. It does not threaten any punitive measures against Morocco if the mission remains understaffed.

Several council members said the resolution should have gone further in demanding the restoration of MINURSO's full strength.

Highlighting the disappointment at its contents, the text received 10 yes votes, just one more than the required minimum, along with two against and three abstentions. Venezuela and Uruguay opposed it, while Russia, New Zealand and Angola abstained.

"It should not have been like this," New Zealand's U.N. Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen told the 15-nation council. "The resolution should have stated the reality, that the expulsion of the civilian component has seriously compromised the mission and its ability to discharge its mandate."

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the weeks of haggling over the wording of the resolution on MINURSO's extension, one of council's most heated annual battles, was even more difficult this time.

"This year's mandate renewal was challenging and contentious," she said. "That is an understatement."

The Sahrawi people's Polisario Front independence movement wants a referendum on the idea of an independent Western Sahara. Morocco has said it would only grant autonomy. While the resolution does not explicitly call for a referendum, it "reaffirms" previous resolutions calling for a plebiscite.

Polisario's U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari said the resolution was a "step in the right direction but it is not enough." He blamed veto power France for preventing the council from threatening punitive measures against Morocco if it refused to let MINURSO restore full staffing.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the resolution was balanced.

The controversy over Ban's "occupation" comment, made during a visit to refugee camps for Sahrawi people in southern Algeria, is the worst dispute between the United Nations 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.

(Writing by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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