United Nations civilian staff have begun returning to the peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara, signaling the apparent end of a dispute sparked by the U.N. chief's use of the word "occupation" to describe Morocco's annexation of the territory in 1975.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday the first batch of civilian peacekeepers landed in Morocco on Wednesday evening and that additional staff would be returning in the coming days.

Morocco expelled more than 70 U.N. civilians linked to the peacekeeping mission in March to protest Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's perceived gaffe.

Diplomats warned the expulsion could set a dangerous precedent for the U.N.'s far-flung peacekeeping missions if it wasn't reversed. The Security Council approved a resolution in April calling on Morocco to restore the mission to full functionality.