Five unemployed Moroccan men have set themselves on fire in the capital Rabat as part of widespread demonstrations in the country over the lack of jobs, especially for university graduates, a rights activist said.
Three were burned badly enough to be hospitalised on Wednesday. Two of them were in serious condition, the activist said.
The men were part of the "unemployed graduates" movement, a loose collection of associations across the country filled with millions of university graduates demanding jobs. Their demonstrations are often violently dispersed by police and have resulted in sustained clashes in some towns and cities .
Around 160 members of the movement have been occupying an administrative building of the ministry of higher education for the past two weeks in Rabat. Supporters would bring them food until two days ago, when security forces stopped them.
"The authorities prevented them from receiving food and water, so five people went outside to get food and threatened to set themselves on fire if they were stopped," Youssef al-Rissouni of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights said on Thursday.
Captured on video
A video published by the group online shows a crowd tossing bread over the heads of police towards a building. Several young men on the building then douse themselves with a liquid and jump down and begin collecting the bread.
When riot police armed with truncheons move to stop them, at least two of the men burst into flames and begin running around wildly before they are surrounded by supporters and the flames apparently smothered.
Photos afterwards showed men with large sections of their skin burned. The online newspaper Goud reported that two of the men had second-degree burns and were going to be sent to the Casablanca burn unit.
While the official unemployment rate is only 9.1 per cent nationally, it is around 16 per cent for graduates and 31.4 per cent for those under 34 years old.
On Thursday, the government presented its new plan to parliament with a focus on job creation, education and improving health care. The Islamist-led government, elected in November after snap elections called by the king, promised to create 200,000 new jobs a year through public and private investment.
While the Moroccan economy has posted steady growth rates for the last several years of around 4 to 5 per cent, it has been unable create enough jobs for the growing numbers of young people entering the work force every year.
The self-immolation of Tunisia's Mohammed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 became the symbol of the depths of despair to which the poor of North Africa and the Middle East have sunk.
Last week, four more people set themselves on fire in Tunisia, including a father of three who died from his burns.
As Morocco's new government announced its economic plan on Thursday, parliament was picketed by at least 1,000 unemployed graduates demanding jobs.
Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane's plan called for increased training programmes and some government jobs to absorb the unemployed graduates, but will mainly rely on the private sector to create the necessary employment.
Benkirane said the measures would grow the economy at 5.5 per cent over the next four years, slightly higher than earlier projections of 4 to 5 per cent.
He said he would keep inflation at around 2 per cent, reduce unemployment to 8 per cent and cut the budget deficit to 3 per cent of gross domestic product.
Other measures announced include a massive construction campaign to eradicate slums and reduce the country's housing shortage to 400,000 units from the current 840,000 units.
Morocco's King Mohammed VI earlier this month named a new government dominated by moderate Islamists who won the impromptu polls.
Benkirane's moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) took the most seats in the November election, and the party now leads a broad coalition.