AL-HOCEIMA: Hundreds of young people clashed with riot police in northern Morocco Friday, following a general strike called by activists demanding the release of a protest leader.
Nasser Zefzafi, who emerged as the head of the grassroots Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, or "Popular Movement", was arrested on Monday after three days on the run.
His arrest sparked protests in the neglected Rif region of northern Morocco, where demonstrators have been demanding more development and railing against corruption, repression and unemployment.
Demonstrators on the streets of Imzouren threw stones at officers, who in turn used water cannon and charged the protestors in a bid to disperse them and bring down their improvised barricades.
It was not immediately possible to confirm if any demonstrators or police had been injured in the clashes.
In the port city of Al-Hoceima most shops were shuttered for the second day of a three-day general strike called by Al-Hirak.
Al-Hoceima and surrounding areas have been shaken by social unrest since the death last October of 31-year-old fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri.
He was crushed in a rubbish truck as he protested against the seizure of swordfish caught out of season.
Al-Hirak also urged supporters to boycott mosques on Friday, the main day of worship, and to pray instead on the streets as a form of protest against sermons sanctioned by state.
Zefzafi was detained along with others on Monday for "attacking internal security", after a warrant for his arrest issued a week ago Friday sparked turmoil in Al-Hoceima, a city of 56,000 inhabitants.
He is also accused of having interrupted the sermon of an imam in the main mosque of the city, accusing him of inciting the congregation against the protest movement.
Correspondents said most mosques in Al-Hoceima were full for the weekly prayer, except for one near Zefzafi's house.
In Imzouren, residents worshipped on the street outside the mosque, according to footage posted online.
Zefzafi's arrest has sparked angry but mostly peaceful protests for more than a week, with thousands of people taking to the streets where security forces have been heavily deployed.
On Friday protesters gathered on the streets of Al-Hoceima for an eighth straight night, but their numbers were down on previous evenings.
Demonstrators chanted slogans such as "We are all Zefzafi" and the protest broke up around midnight without incident.
Government spokesman Mustafa El-Khafli said authorities have detained around 40 people since last Friday, 31 of whom are still under arrest, the official MAP news agency reported.
Core members of Al-Hirak were among those arrested.
"The doors to dialogue remain open with civil society," El-Khalfi was quoted as saying by MAP.
He said 700 sit-ins have taken place over the past seven months in the Rif, including 150 in Al-Hoceima.