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RABAT, Morocco — Morocco on Tuesday canceled its annual military exercises with the United States after the Obama administration backed having the U.N. monitor human rights in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, U.S. officials said.
The 13th annual "African Lion" exercise — involving 1,400 U.S. servicemen and 900 Moroccan troops, as well as foreign observers from places like France and Germany — had been set to start Wednesday with many personnel already in place. The troops and equipment were now in the process of being redeployed, according to Eric Elliott, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, or Africom.
Other U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there had not yet been a formal announcement of Morocco's reasons for the cancellation. Morocco's government spokesman declined to comment about the exercises.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1976, sparking a decades-long battle for independence by the Polisario Front group, which ended with a U.N.-brokered 1991 cease-fire.
Mustapha Khalfi, the spokesman who doubles as the minister of communication, summoned journalists Tuesday to express his government's anger over initiatives to broaden the U.N. mission's mandate in Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring.
"It is an attack on the national sovereignty of Morocco and will have negative consequences on the stability of the whole region," he warned. "We count on the wisdom of the members of the Security Council to avoid such initiatives."
Ownership of the mineral-rich region is an incredibly sensitive matter for the Moroccans. Morocco has proposed a wide autonomy for Western Sahara, but the Polisario insist on the right to self-determination through a referendum. Neither side has budged and sporadic talks have ended in a stalemate.
The U.N. observer mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, currently has 183 military observers, 26 troops and six civilian police and its mandate for the next year is being examined next week.
"We are actively reviewing MINURSO's mandate and are working closely with our U.N. Security Council partners on this issue," said Payton Knopf, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. "The United States continues to support the U.N.-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected."
Khalfi described the initiative to expand MINURSO's mandate as "unjustified" in light of Morocco's efforts to improve human rights throughout country, including the annexed territory.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International, however, expressed concern recently over the harassment of pro-independence activists and the alleged use of torture in Western Sahara.
"Pro-independence activists have been imprisoned following demonstrations calling for the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, and some have reportedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated during questioning by Moroccan law enforcement officials," the organization said Sunday.
Amnesty called for the U.N. to monitor human rights in the disputed territories as well as in the Polisario-run refugee camps across the border in Algeria.
In his report last week on the Western Sahara, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed their point and said continued reports of human rights violations required sustained monitoring by a neutral party.
U.S. personnel for African Lion had been deploying into Morocco since last week, Elliott said. It is one of the largest of the 12 to 18 exercises carried out by Africom every year, and features live fire exercises, amphibious operations and low level flight training.
Such exercises are important "because they give us an opportunity to work with African nations. Morocco happens to have one of the more capable military forces in Africa," Elliott said.
Lee reported from Washington. Edith Lederer at the United Nations in New York and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.