U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Morocco’s foreign minister on Monday he was angered and disappointed by a demonstration in Rabat he said was a personal attack on him over remarks he made about the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Tens of thousands of Moroccans marched though the capital on Sunday to protest Ban’s position on Western Sahara and rally support for the king.
Ban “conveyed his astonishment at the recent statement of the government of Morocco and expressed his deep disappointment and anger regarding the demonstration that was mobilized on Sunday, which targeted him in person,” Ban’s press office said in an unusually tough statement.
“He stressed that such attacks are disrespectful to him and to the United Nations,” said the statement, which was issued after he met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar.
Rabat accused Ban last week of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, saying he used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the region that has been at the center of a dispute since 1975.
The United Nations acknowledges he used the term. Monday’s statement said there was a misunderstanding over his use of the word “occupation,” noting it was Ban’s “personal reaction to the deplorable humanitarian conditions in which the Sahrawi refugees have lived in for far too long.”
The U.N. statement issued on Monday evening said Ban asked Mezouar for “clarification regarding the reported presence of several members of the Moroccan government among the demonstrators.”
State news agency MAP said 3 million people attended Sunday’s march, although those figures could not be confirmed. Some protesters said they were bused for free to the march and that trains had also been free for the day of the rally.
The dispute over the region in the northwest edge of Africa has dragged on since Morocco took control over most of it in 1975 after the withdrawal of former colonial power Spain.
The Polisario Front, which says the territory belongs to ethnic Sahrawis, fought a war against Morocco until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991, but the two sides have since been deadlocked.
Polisario, backed by Morocco’s regional rival and neighbor Algeria and a number of other African states, wants a referendum promised in the ceasefire agreement on the region’s fate. Morocco says it will not offer more than autonomy for the region, rich in phosphates and possibly offshore oil and gas.