RABAT (Reuters) – Morocco said on Saturday it had broken up a militant cell that was training youths to send them to fight in Mali, which has become the focus of international concern over the spread of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The interior ministry said in a statement on state news agency MAP it broke up a cell operating in the cities of Nador, Casablanca, Guercif, Laayoune and Kalaat Sraghna.
Around 20 people had been sent to fight with AQIM and al Qaeda ally the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and others had been sent to Libya, it said.
Morocco, a Western ally, often says it has broken militant cells accused of plotting inside and outside the country.
European leaders are growing increasingly anxious that Mali could turn into a platform for militant attacks, including in Europe.
Meanwhile, a rights activist said riot police had broken up a prison protest this week by ultraconservative Islamist Salafis, who share a similar ideology to al Qaeda.
The protests followed Salafi prison riots over conditions last year in the same jail of Sale, just outside Rabat.
Salafis have become active in Morocco in recent years as their influence spread in other Arab countries. Islamists, including Salafis, have risen to prominence in Egypt and Tunisia following last year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Anas Haloui of the Joint Committee for Defending Islamist Prisoners said Salafis began protesting on Wednesday but police tried to break up their protest the next day by force.
“One prisoner was tortured by ordinary prisoners and guards, so a demonstration was organised to push the administration to allow all the Salafi prisoners to be in the same building together,” Haloui said.
“Since the police intervention, the cells are closed and there’s no information on what happened to the injured people.”
Prison officials were not available for comment.
The authorities released some Salafi leaders from prison this year in an apparent effort to win them on side in the monarchy’s efforts to outwit opposition.
Some 120 Salafi detainees are still in Sale prison after the riots in May last year. Salafis were then distributed in different prisons around the country. Around 600 Salafis in total are thought to be held in Moroccan jails.
Under pressure after the uprisings, which provoked protests in Morocco, King Mohammed approved a new constitution conceding more powers to the elected government and allowed the head of an Islamist party to take charge after elections last year.
While Salafis have remained largely outside the political system, analysts say they spread considerable influence among poor sectors of a country where unemployment, inflation, and unequal wealth distribution are major threats to stability.