Protests in Jerada flare as three people die scavenging coal deep underground
Thousands of people staged a protest on Friday in an impoverished Moroccan city over the latest fatality in the region's "mines of death," the third such victim since December, witnesses said.
The protest took place outside the morgue of a hospital in the northeastern town of Jerada, where security forces were deployed in the wake of Thursday's deadly accident.
Shops stayed closed as the crowd accompanied the body of the latest "martyr" of the area's abandoned coal pits, Abderrahman Zakaria, 32, to the cemetery for his funeral.
The government said a ministerial delegation would soon visit the region to look into the grievances of local residents.
The miners have been left behind by economic liberalisation that won plaudits from the International Monetary Fund at a regional conference in Marrakech this week headlined "Opportunity for all".
Each day, hundreds of people risk their lives to extract coal by hand from the closed pits.
King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has lifted living standards in urban and coastal areas and raised the country's profile abroad, rolling out investment in the Ivory Coast and other sub-Saharan countries.
But public dissatisfaction is growing in some poor areas at a time when the government is implementing currency reforms and cutting subsidies to drive economic growth.
Protests in Jerada began in late December after two brothers drowned when scavenging coal deep underground: one of them hacked through into an adjoining water well, flooding the shaft.
Residents say the town has been neglected since the mines closed about 20 years ago and tensions with Algeria shut the nearby border about the same time.
The miners say they can sell a bag of coal for $6.50-$8.70 to traders who pass it on to restaurants, hotels and public baths.
"Influential people exploit the miners, who have no other jobs, and officials know about this," said Abdelwahab Hoummani, an activist in Jerada. "We demand jobs, development and the prosecution of corrupt people."
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The mining ministry was not immediately available to comment, but its minister, Aziz Rabbah, said in January the state had "reacted positively" to the town's demands and a commission has been paying out compensation for closed mines.
Protests had railed against high electricity bills before the miners' deaths, and Jerada residents say they will continue, even though dozens of leaders and members of the protest movement in other are now on trial.
Stability in Morocco is important for Western governments as it is the only country in North Africa where militant groups have failed to gain a foothold. Rabat is also a key intelligence-sharing partner with the West.