By Rafael Marchante
SIDI IFNI, Morocco, June 11 (Reuters) - Residents of a Moroccan town where police used force to end a week-long blockade complained of heavy-handed tactics on Wednesday and said hundreds of protesters were hiding in nearby hills.
The government has denied allegations by some eyewitnesses that demonstrators were killed and dozens injured when police moved in on Saturday to break up the demonstration at Sidi Ifni by youths protesting against poverty and a lack of jobs.
Around 200 protesters are taking refuge in outlying hills as many hundreds of police and anti-riot personnel keep watch over the Atlantic port, a Reuters photographer on the scene said.
"The situation is one of anger, especially at night," local driving instructor Aziz El Ouahdani told Reuters by telephone. "On Monday night some demonstrators came down from the mountain and attacked the security forces for an hour with stones."
The police struck back with truncheons and teargas and arrested some of the youths, he said.
Local officials said last week’s protests had brought the Atlantic port to a standstill. Trucks stood idle for days and the fish they were carrying rotted away.
Early on Saturday, police moved in to remove the demonstrators at the port. Later, with truncheons and dogs, they searched houses in the small town 700 km (435 miles) southwest of the capital Rabat, locals said.
"They beat them harshly using truncheons and broke bones," Morocco’s main independent human rights group AMDH said in a statement. "They raped, used sexual harassment and insults, and stole goods from the houses."
Human rights activist Mohamed Essam said the authorities had now moved into the mountain areas, forcing those seeking refuge to flee again.
Popular protests occur regularly in Morocco but reports of deaths are rare. Witnesses in Sidi Ifni said some families who reported relatives missing found later they were under arrest.
The government said the police had a moral duty to free up the port, an economic lifeline for the town, and restore public order.
"In Ifni things took a more dramatic dimension than elsewhere because certain people tried with extremist intent to give the demands a more political character," Morocco’s Communications Minister Khalid Naciri told Reuters.
He said the situation had returned to normal but remained under supervision. If abuses by members of the security forces were proven the perpetrators would be severely punished, Naciri said.
Locals said the protesters complained of being sidelined by the Rabat government and passed over for economic development and public sector jobs.
Their discontent was further aroused after the port’s mostly Arab inhabitants, who resent being governed from a majority Berber town nearby, were told Sidi Ifni would not become a province in its own right in a reform to administrative boundaries. (Additional reporting by Zakia Abdennebi; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)