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Morocco police hunt protest leader in neglected Rif

Prosecutor orders arrest of Zefzafi after he ‘obstructed freedom of worship’

By AFP - May 27,2017 - Last updated at May 27,2017

This file photo taken on May 6, shows Moroccan activist Nasser Zefzafi banging on a pot during a protest in the northern city of Al Hoceima (AFP photo)

AL HOCEIMA, Morocco — Moroccan authorities were engaged in a manhunt on Saturday for a protest leader in the neglected Rif region after his arrest was ordered for interrupting an imam's prayer sermon following more than six months of social unrest.

The king's prosecutor late Friday ordered "the opening of an investigation and the arrest of Nasser Zefzafi" after he "obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship in the Mohammed V mosque in Al Hoceima".

The northern port city has been rocked by protests since the death in October of a fishmonger crushed in a rubbish truck as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.

Calls for justice for Mouhcine Fikri, 31, in the ethnically Berber Rif region soon evolved into a grassroots movement demanding jobs and economic development, with Zefzafi emerging as the leader of the Al Hirak Al Shaabi, or "Popular Movement".

Zefzafi's whereabouts on Saturday were unclear.

According to the prosecutor, on Friday he stopped "the preacher from continuing his sermon, giving a provocative speech in which he insulted the imam and fomented disturbances that undermined the calm and sacredness of the place of worship".

Mobile phone footage shared on Facebook shows Zefzafi calling the imam a "liar", asking whether mosques were built for God or those in power, and slamming "those who want to make the Rif capitulate".

Zefzafi also criticised a recent music festival in the capital Rabat, and the "naked bodies we see live on the television of a state that calls itself Muslim".

A relative of Zefzafi said he had evaded arrest as he left the mosque on Friday.

Shortly afterwards, in footage broadcast on social media, he appeared on his rooftop in Al Hoceima surrounded by supporters, saying: "I'm not scared. If they want to arrest me, let them come."

In another video posted later, he said he was "safe and sound" and called for peaceful demonstrations.

His supporters said on Facebook his home had been searched.

An interior ministry source said Zefzafi had not been arrested, adding that young protesters had thrown stones at security forces on Friday in the city of some 56,000 inhabitants.

Official news agency MAP said clashes between demonstrators and police injured several people, including three members of the security forces who were seriously hurt.

In a statement, Al Hoceima's prosecutor said 20 people were detained on Friday and Saturday, including on suspicion of "harming the internal security of the state".

The statement accused them of "receiving money transfers and logistical support from abroad to carry out propaganda activities that could harm the integrity of the kingdom".

A local human rights activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said around 10 activists from Al Hirak were detained.

They included activist Mohammed Jelloul who was recently freed from prison and was detained "violently next to his home and in front of his family".

 

Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit led a large government delegation to Al Hoceima on Monday, the latest trip to the region to promise projects to boost the local economy.

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