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Bodies found after Moroccan protests

By the CNN Wire Staff
Moroccans demonstrate in the streets of Tetouan on Sunday against the electricity company Veolia and the government.
Moroccans demonstrate in the streets of Tetouan on Sunday against the electricity company Veolia and the government.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Interior minister says vandalism broke out after the demonstrations
  • The bodies were found in a bank in Al Hoceima, an official says
  • The demonstrations were mostly peaceful
  • Activists say police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets in one city

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Rabat, Morocco (CNN) -- Five charred bodies were found Monday in a Moroccan bank that burned down during protests the day before, Morocco's state-run news agency reported, citing the country's interior minister.

The bodies were found in a bank in the town of Al Hoceima in northern Morocco, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui told reporters on Monday. He said the acts of vandalism followed the peaceful protests in at least six cities Sunday, according to Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse. He estimated that about 37,000 people participated in the protests nationwide.

The demonstrators were calling for political reform, according to Human Rights Watch. Cherkaoui said Monday they included labor unions, youth organizations and human rights groups.

Police stayed away from the marches and demonstrations, most of which were peaceful, Human Rights Watch reported.

The vandalism broke out in a handful of cities afterward, Cherkaoui said, describing it as acts of sabotage committed by troublemakers including ex-convicts.

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Twenty-four banks were burned, he said, along with 50 shops and private buildings and 66 vehicles.

Authorities dispersed the vandals and made arrests, Cherkaoui said, according to Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse. About 120 people are awaiting trial, he said, and detained minors were returned to their parents. Some 128 people were injured, he said, including 115 security forces members.

Cherkaoui said authorities are investigating the five deaths in the bank, according to the news agency. The victims are thought to be computer technicians. Banks in Morocco are not open on Sunday.

The interior minister said the protests included sit-ins, rallies and demonstrations, Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse reported. "Thanks to the expanding liberties, the practice of a healthy and authentic democracy and the right to the freedom of expression enjoyed in our country, these protests took place in a peaceful environment marked by serenity and discipline," he said, according to the report.

A government spokesman told a Russian television station on Sunday that protests in Morocco are not unusual, according to the Moroccan state news agency.

"Unlike most Arab countries, rallies and protests are common in Morocco," said Khalid Naciri, communication minister and government spokesman.

Naciri said the protesters' demands are "ordinary" and that the rallies take place lawfully and preserved public order in an environment of "stability." He also said the protests are part of the practice of democracy, Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse said. Demonstrators' demands are on the agenda of most political parties, he said.

Morocco's laws on demonstrations are liberal. Cherkaoui emphasized Monday that people are free to demonstrate in the country. But, he said, while authorities support freedom of expression, they will intervene to stop those who are disrupting public order or damaging property, the news agency said.

In Rabat, Morocco's capital, an estimated 2,000 demonstrators gathered at Bab al-Had Square and marched to parliament, where they chanted slogans calling for change, including "Down with tyranny" and "The people demand change," according to Human Rights Watch.

Hundreds also demonstrated in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Agadir, Human Rights Watch said, as well as in the Rif, the mountainous area in northern Morocco. There were reports that protesters set fire to a police station in Marrakesh, the organization reported, citing a witness.

A few unarmed, uniformed police officers monitored the Rabat protests, the group said. There were no reports of arrests in the capital, according to Human Rights Watch.

In Larache in northwest Morocco, a representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights reported that protesters set fire to a police station, robbed stores and attempted to break into banks, Human Rights Watch said. Cherkaoui told reporters they also stormed a customs administration building and looted drugs and alcohol that had been seized, Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse said.

And in Al Hoceima, where the bodies were found, demonstrators vandalized a stadium, two political party offices and a pair of hotels, the organization said, citing activists in the city. Security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and there were reports of injuries, the group said. A small police building was also burned there, Cherkaoui said.

Meanwhile, youth groups who demonstrated over the weekend are calling for their own political party.

Morocco is much more advanced in many areas compared to Egypt and Tunisia and aligns itself more with Europe than other Arab countries in the region.

The king, who is widely revered, is pushing through reforms in the country, but the government is not so well respected by many people here, particularly the youth.

"What happened over the weekend is that people sent a message to the king. We want reform in justice and free access to hospitals," said Fatiha Layadi, an opposition member of parliament.

"The problem is that these groups don't feel there is a platform for their views. There's no debate, so if we are to have more of these demonstrations, firstly the government needs to better organize itself, but secondly it would be better if these (youths) could have a voice of their own through the media."

There are no political debate shows, Layadi said, but youths on Facebook are asking for help in forming a political party.

Journalist Martin Jay contributed to this report for CNN.

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