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Morocco protesters flood Rabat in solidarity with Rif region

Demonstrators march through Rabat in procession almost kilometre long, chanting 'Free the prisoners!'
Moroccan protesters shout slogans during demonstration in downtown Rabat on Sunday (AFP)

Thousands of people took to the streets of Rabat on Sunday demanding that authorities release the leaders of a protest movement that has rocked Morocco's neglected northern Rif region for months.

The demonstrators marched along Mohamed VI avenue in downtown Rabat in a procession almost a kilometre long, chanting "Free the prisoners!" an AFP correspondent said.

An interior ministry source said between 12,000 and 15,000 people took part in Sunday's protest, which was organised by several organisations, including Morocco's most popular Islamist group.

The tolerated but unrecognised Al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) organisation put the number of demonstrators in what it hailed as "a historic march" at one million.

Over the past two weeks authorities in the North African country have arrested dozens of people in a crackdown on Al-Hirak Al-Shaabi or "Popular Movement" protests in the Rif port of al-Hoceima.

Eighty-six people have been referred for prosecution, among them 30 who have been charged with offences including "undermining internal security," and have been incarcerated.

Among them is Al-Hirak leader Nasser Zefzafi, who was among the first to be arrested on 29 May.

On Sunday, many marchers held up portraits of Zefzafi, and his father also briefly joined the protest alongside families of other arrested activists.

The demonstrators also waved the flags of the Amazigh, Morocco's Berber community.

The mainly Berber Rif region has been rocked by social unrest since the gruesome death of a fishmonger in al-Hoceima last October.

Mouhcine Fikri, 31, was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to prevent the destruction of swordfish that had been confiscated after being caught out of season.

Calls for justice snowballed into a wider social movement led by Al-Hirak, demanding development, an end to corruption and jobs for the Rif.

On Sunday, the demonstrators also called for "freedom, dignity and social justice".

The Rif has long had a tense relationship with the central authorities in Rabat, and it was at the heart of the Arab Spring-inspired protests in Morocco in February 2011.

King Mohamed VI relinquished some of his near-absolute control through constitutional reforms following the 2011 protests.

Sunday's demonstration in Rabat came after an official and an activist said police had detained four more people in the Rif at the weekend. 

Demonstrators have rallied nightly in al-Hoceima and the nearby town of Imzouren since Zefzafi's arrest.

The Moroccan press has reported families joining together to start a group to campaign for the release of detainees.

Protesters gathered at night after breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn till sunset.

Protesters gathered in al-Hoceima late on Saturday without incident, although their numbers were lower than in previous days.

About 500 people marched in Imzouren, 15km from al-Hoceima, an AFP photographer said.

"We are all Zefzafi," demonstrators shouted, demanding that detainees be freed.

The previous night, protesters had clashed with security forces in Imzouren.

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