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Moroccan police fire tear gas to disperse protests in north

People have taken to streets in Rif region around town of al-Hoceima since October over injustice, corruption and underdevelopment
Thousands of protesters gather in town of al-Hoceima to try to join in rallies that local authorities have banned (AFP)

Police fired tear gas and used truncheons to scatter hundreds of protesters in northern Morocco, a Reuters witness said on Thursday, part of the biggest wave of demonstrations in the kingdom since Arab Spring-inspired rallies in 2011.

People have taken to the streets in the Rif region around the town of al-Hoceima since October over injustice, corruption and underdevelopment, and on Thursday thousands gathered to try to join in rallies that local authorities had banned.

Police charged small groups of protesters around the town and forced many into side streets where authorities had set up a heavy security presence with checkpoints to block people joining the protests, the Reuters witness said.

Cars and taxis drove around honking in support of the rally.

"Every time we come out, they don't even let us protest peacefully," said Warda, 19, a local demonstrator. "Our demands are simple, we want universities, and hospitals."

Political protests are rare in the North African kingdom. But tensions have been simmering in al-Hoceima since October when a fishmonger died after being crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to save his fish confiscated by police.

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Authorities have arrested more than 100 leaders and members of the movement, called Hirak al-Chaabi in Arabic, since the end of May, and protests have vented over broader frustrations about the region's lack of development and economic problems.

"Our main call in this protest is to demand the release of the prisoners and to realise the initial demands of the Hirak movement from October," said Mohammed al-Faqih 35, who said he has three cousins arrested for their role in the protest.

The Hirak movement was born after the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in al-Hoceima, which sits on Morocco's Mediterranean coast. Local police confiscated fish they said he had bought illegally and dumped it in a garbage truck. Trying to recover his stock, Fikri jumped inside and was crushed.

His death has become a symbol of hogra - a colloquial Arabic term for the deprivation of dignity due to the abuse of power and injustice. But in a country where the palace remains the ultimate power, the demonstrators have directed their anger at the government rather than the monarch himself.