Morocco police withdraw from restive northern cities
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Moroccan security forces have begun withdrawing from the restive northern cities of Al-Hoceima and Imzouren, which have been rocked by weeks of social unrest, officials and residents said.
A "gradual" pullback from both cities began on Monday at the request of King Mohammed VI, the governor of Al-Hoceima province, Fouad Chourak, told reporters.
A resident of Al-Hoceima, who spoke to AFP by telephone Tuesday, confirmed the pullback.
"Policemen have withdrawn from the central square in Al-Hoceima," the resident said. "Only a few policemen in civilian clothes are left."
Al-Hoceima, the main port in the neglected northern Rif region, has been rocked by unrest since a fishmonger was crushed to death in a rubbish truck in October as he tried to retrieve swordfish confiscated for being caught out of season.
In the months since, demands for justice and anger over the region's perceived marginalisation snowballed into a grassroots movement centred on Al-Hoceima, but protests also spread to neighbouring cities, including Imzouren.
The governor said he hoped demonstrators "will react positively" to the police withdrawal.
"Trust and security are linked... until the situation returns to normal," he said, adding that a positive response from protesters could pave the way for further measures by authorities to restore stability.
The pullback comes a week after clashes between security forces and demonstrators left nearly 80 police officers wounded, most of them struck by stones.
Authorities have arrested more than 100 people, including Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of the grassroots protest movement known as Al-Hirak al-Shaabi, since the end of May.
Al-Hirak has been demanding jobs, development, an end to corruption, and the release of all those arrested.
The government has responded to the unrest by relaunching a 2015 programme to improve the region's infrastructure, health facilities and education services by 2019.
The police withdrawal comes at the start of the tourist season, when many of the Rif diaspora living in Europe return for holidays.
The impact of these returns has raised concern, as diaspora associations have shown support for the movement, and before his arrest Zefzafi had called for a major protest on July 20.
A week ago Mohammed VI told ministers of his "disappointment, dissatisfaction and concern" that a $670 million (600 million euro) development programme for the Rif was behind schedule.
On a visit to the region, Tourism Minister Mohamed Sajid announced a series of "urgent measures to save the current summer season", including airline subsidies, airport tax relief and promotion campaigns.
The Rif has long had a tense relationship with central authorities in Rabat, and it was at the heart of the Arab Spring-inspired protests in Morocco in February 2011.
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