Morocco closes 2 000 mine shafts after string of deaths

Moroccan authorities closed 2 000 illegal mineshafts last year in Jerada, an impoverished former coal town that has been the site of a string of deadly mining accidents.

The closure of the "abandoned and illicitly exploited shafts" was announced Wednesday by the energy and mines ministry, which promised to shut some 1 500 remaining shafts by the end of 2019.

A bastion of trade union power, the northeastern city was hit by the collapse of its main industry in the late 1990s as a mine employing 9 000 workers was judged uneconomical and shut down.

But hundreds of men continued to eke out a day-to-day living by venturing into abandoned shafts and selling coal to local brokers dubbed "barons".

The accidental death of two miners in late 2017 in an abandoned shaft sparked major protests, as town residents - among the poorest in Morocco - demanded investment and jobs.

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In response, the authorities promised to seal abandoned shafts and presented an economic revitalisation programme - at the same time as banning "illegal protests".

But the announcements did not stop illicit mining around Jerada and there were at least nine more accidental deaths in 2018, including five in November.

Protesters clashed with police last year and 95 were arrested, resulting in trials that have seen 44 mainly young defendants sentenced to prison terms.

At the same time, 26 mining permits were granted in 2018 to young people in the region attached to special co-operatives, the energy and mines ministry said on Wednesday.

And a total of 82 million euros ($95 million) will be ploughed into industry and agriculture projects by 2020, the ministry said.