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People attend a protest about the lack of jobs after two miners died while working in a clandestine coal mine, in Jerada, Morocco, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal(reuters_tickers)
By Zakia Abdennebi and Ulf Laessing
RABAT/MARRAKECH, Morocco (Reuters) - Moroccans risking their lives scraping coal from abandoned mines have listened to local officials, the mining ministry and a close royal ally since they began protesting five weeks ago. Now some of them want the king himself to intervene.
"When they closed the mines they offered us new jobs and compensation but nothing has happened," said one former miner in the northern town of Jerada who declined to be named, fearing reprisal.
"We will keep protesting until our lives improve."
The miners have been left behind by the economic liberalisation that won plaudits from the International Monetary Fund at a regional conference in Marrakech this week headlined "Opportunity for all".
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 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.
The Jerada protests have found common cause with dissent that has rumbled since 2016 in the Rif, also in the north, both groups spurred by the deaths of men desperate trying to make ends meet.
They are a far cry from the mass protests which rocked the North African country in 2011 when uprisings ousted rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but pose a challenge to a constitutional monarchy in which the king has far-reaching powers.
Stability in Morocco is important for Western governments as it is the only country in North Africa where jihadist groups have failed to gain a foothold. Rabat is also a key intelligence-sharing partner on Islamist militancy.
At least 10 million people visit its beaches and cities each year, some of them switching from Egypt and Tunisia after those countries suffered political turmoil and militant attacks.
While Marrakech, an ancient city, is bustling with tourists and new buildings have gone up in the commercial centre Casablanca and capital Rabat, the changes have bypassed rural areas like Jerada in the remote northeast.
Protests there swelled in late December after two brothers drowned scavenging coal deep underground: one of them hacked through into an adjoining water well, flooding the shaft.
On Thursday, another miner, in his early 30s, was killed when a shaft collapsed, the interior ministry said. Activists issued a renewed call for protests.
Residents say the town has been neglected since the mines closed some 20 years ago and tensions with Algeria shut the nearby border at around the same time.
The miners say they sell a bag of coal for between 60 and 80 dirham ($6.5-$8.7) to traders who pass it on for 600 dirham 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."
The mining ministry was not immediately available to comment, but Mining Minister Aziz Rabbah said in January the state had "reacted positively" to the town's demands and a commission had been paying out compensation for closed mines.
Protests had rumbled 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 Rif, Hirak al Chaabi, are now on trial.
Police have set up checkpoints to monitor people's movements to and from Jerada, where residents say miners gather every week in the main square to demand state aid and alternative jobs.
Some shout "Hirak, Hirak", social media posts show, in solidarity with Rif, where protests began after a man was crushed to death in a rubbish truck trying to retrieve fish that had been caught illegally and thrown away by police.
No-one at the demonstrations calls for overthrowing the king, who heads the Muslim world's longest continuing dynasty.
Many Moroccans are wary of the kind of instability rocking Libya and other parts of the region and criticise the government and king's entourage rather than the monarch himself.
The government is investing in tourism, with a new airport for the main northeastern city of Oujda, 60 km (40 miles) from Jerada, to bring tourists to equally new nearby coastal resorts.
It announced auto industry projects worth 1.23 billion euros($1.54 billion) in December and hopes the currency reform will boost investment and help growth reach 3.4 percent this year, after 4 percent last year, when agricultural output was better.
Manufacturing jobs have been created, but not enough for a growing population and many young Moroccans have sought work abroad.
The king has called for more development, fired top officials in October after a state agency found inequality, and sent a close ally, Agricultural Minister Aziz Akhenouch, to Jerada late in January to talk to angry residents.
Akhenouch, one of Morocco's richest men, announced agricultural investments worth around 28 million dirham ($8 million), local media said, but protests resumed the next day.
"The king is probably the only one who can solve this," said Hoummani, the activist.
Geoff Porter from North Africa risk consulting said the government would find it hard to stick to its market liberalisation without alienating the rural poor.
At the Marrakech conference, Prime Minster Saad Eddine El Othman said the government was rolling out programs to remove inequalities.
Abdelghani Ajjani from a Jerada commission negotiating with authorities, had yet to be convinced. "The government has made the same promises they made when closing the mines," he said. "There are people here who think the king should visit Jerada."
($1 = 9.1822 Moroccan dirham)
($1 = 0.7992 euros)
(additional reporting by a Reuters photographer in Jerada; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)