RELIGION

Moroccan government seeks calm after northern protests

Morocco's government ion Thursday defended police actions in a northern town where arrests of demonstrators have aggravated public anger over corruption and poor economic conditions.

Prime Minister Saadeddine El Othmani said at a government meeting that the interior and justice ministers assured him authorities are acting "in the respect of human rights" in demonstrations in El Hoceima. He insisted on the need for public security and stability for the North African kingdom.

The six political parties that make up the parliamentary majority issued a statement Thursday insisting on the respect for the right to demonstrate. It urged more "positive" government interaction with protesters.

El Hoceima has been shaken by protests since the death of a fish vendor in October, crushed by a garbage compactor while trying to save fish that officials had confiscated. The protests have drawn national attention to the plight of Morocco's impoverished northern Rif region and pose a challenge to the new government.

Morocco's parliament will hold a special session Tuesday with the justice and interior ministers about the tensions in El Hoceima, government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi told The Associated Press.

Protest leader Nasser Zefzafi was arrested Monday after a three-day manhunt that prompted violent clashes between demonstrators and police. He faces charges of threatening state security, according to a statement from the El Hoceima royal prosecutor.

Some 40 other activists also have been arrested and 32 are facing criminal investigation, the prosecutor said. Some are accused of receiving foreign money and support for protests seen as threatening Morocco's reputation for stability in a volatile region. They face trial Tuesday.

The arrests have sparked protests in cities around Morocco, primarily in the evening after observant Muslims break the daylong fast of the holy month of Ramadan.

Ahmed El Hajj, president of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, said authorities have violently dispersed demonstrations in Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Taza.

Human rights activists are demanding the release of Zefzafi and the other protesters and say authorities are increasingly aggressive against demonstrations.

A lawyer for some arrested protesters, Mohamed Ziane, said some have suffered beatings. He told the AP that authorities have agreed to medical examinations and an internal investigation.