Tensions have been simmering since the death in October of a fishmonger who was crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to salvage his fish confiscated by police. The arrested Nasser Zefzafi is seen as being the leader behind the protests.

Nasser Zefzafi, seen here speaking at a protest on May 18, was arrested on Monday.
Nasser Zefzafi, seen here speaking at a protest on May 18, was arrested on Monday.

Authorities in Morocco on Monday arrested the fugitive leader of a protest movement that has shaken the country's northern Rif region for months, officials said.

A government source and another official from the interior ministry said Nasser Zefzafi, who had been on the run since Friday, had been taken into custody.

Further details of his arrest were not immediately available.

Morocco's northern Rif region has been shaken by social unrest since October after the death of a fishmonger who was crushed inside a garbage truck while trying to salvage his fish confiscated by police.

Calls for justice for Mouhcine Fikri, 31, 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", based largely in the coastal city of Al Hoceima.

Moroccans gather during a demonstration in the northern town of Al Hoceima to protest injustice and corruption, May 18, 2017. (Reuters)
Moroccans gather during a demonstration in the northern town of Al Hoceima to protest injustice and corruption, May 18, 2017. (Reuters)

Zefzafi's arrest was ordered after he on Friday allegedly interrupted a preacher at a mosque and called for further demonstrations.

Obstructing freedom of worship

Prosecutors said the arrest was ordered after Zefzafi "obstructed, in the company of a group of individuals, freedom of worship" at the mosque in Al Hoceima.

The protest leader later appeared in footage broadcast on social media saying he was "safe and sound" and calling for further demonstrations.

He faces between six months and three years in prison on charges of insulting the imam, making provocative speeches and sowing disturbances.

Evening protests in Al Hoceima, a city of some 56,000 residents, were held on Friday and Saturday, with demonstrators clashing with police. Three members of the security forces were reported to have been seriously hurt on Friday.

An AFP journalist saw hundreds of mainly young demonstrators gathered in two neighbourhoods of the city again on Sunday night, chanting "The state is corrupt!" and "We are all Zefzafi!"

The protesters attempted to make their way to the city's central square but were blocked by security forces. After an hour-long face-off with police, the youths dispersed without incident.

Police are everywhere

"We cannot take a single step, the police are everywhere," an activist in the city told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The activist said a solidarity rally had taken place in the nearby city of Imzouren.

Demonstrations were also reported in two other northern cities, Nador and Tanger, as well as in Casablanca, Marrakesh and the capital Rabat, where some 300 people took part.

As of late Sunday, police had arrested 22 people in connection with the disturbances in Al Hoceima, according to officials.

Local sources have reported significantly more arrests and said many of those detained have been transferred to Casablanca.

Authorities have accused protesters of receiving money and other support from abroad "to carry out propaganda activities."

Heart of Arab uprising protests

The mainly ethnically Berber Rif region has long had a tense relationship with Morocco's central authorities and was at the heart of the Arab uprising-inspired protests in 2011.

The protests subsided following a series of political reforms including constitutional changes that saw King Mohamed VI give up some of his wide-ranging powers.

Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit led a large government delegation to Al Hoceima last week, the latest in a series of government trips to the region.

Officials have promised increased support for the local economy, in particular the crucial fishing industry.

Zefzafi, 39 and unemployed, emerged as the leader of the movement by broadcasting passionate speeches online in the local Tarifit dialect from his home or the street.

Zefzafi and other activists insist the movement is not seeking independence for the region, despite its long history of resistance to central rule and the fact that some protesters have waved the flag of the short-lived Rif republic that existed from 1921 to 1926.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies