Morocco police hunt Rif region protest leader

Authorities order arrest of Nasser Zefzafi for interrupting an imam’s sermon.

Moroccan activist and the leader of "Hirak" Zefzafi gives a speech during a demonstration against injustice and corruption in the northern town of Al-Hoceima
Nasser Zefzafi is a leader of a movement demanding economic development for the Rif region [Youssef Boudlal/Reuters]

Moroccan authorities were engaged in a manhunt on Saturday for a protest leader in the Rif region. His arrest was ordered for interrupting an imam’s prayer sermon following more than six months of social unrest.

The king’s prosecutor late on 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 garbage 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.

WATCH: What’s behind Morocco’s street protests?

According to the prosecutor, the protest leader on Friday 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”.

A relative of Zefzafi said the protest leader had managed to escape arrest as he left the mosque on Friday.

Shortly after, in footage broadcast on social media, the leader appeared on his rooftop in Al-Hoceima surrounded by supporters, saying: “I’m not scared. If they want to arrest me, let them come.”

The whereabouts of Nasser Zefzafi, centre, were unclear on Saturday [Youssef Boudlal/Reuters]
The whereabouts of Nasser Zefzafi, centre, were unclear on Saturday [Youssef Boudlal/Reuters]

In another video posted afterwards, he said he was “safe and sound” and called for peaceful demonstrations.

His supporters said on Facebook his home had been searched.

A source at the interior ministry 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 wounded several people, including three members of the security forces who were seriously injured.

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

Source: News Agencies