Protests over the deaths of three young men extracting coal from dangerous, abandoned mines are posing a new challenge to Morocco's government.

Fists raised and shouting for help, residents of the northeast town of Jerada have held a series of protests in recent weeks. Police are on alert.

The men killed were trying to eke out a living by reselling the coal for a few dollars per bag to black marketers. The town's mines were shut down 20 years ago, and youth have few job prospects.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi promised last week the government would help Jerada's economy.

The protests are embarrassing to Morocco just as it is loosening up its currency to open up its economy internationally, and as it tries to become an African investment powerhouse.