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Morocco's unions unite to protest gov't austerity

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) — Thousands of workers, teachers and civil servants marched through downtown Casablanca on Sunday to protest austerity plans put in place by the Moroccan government to control runaway spending.

During the march, police mounted on motorcycles swooped down and arrested several pro-democracy activists that used the rally as an occasion to denounce the all-powerful monarchy. Criticism of the elected government in this North African kingdom is tolerated, but not the hereditary monarchy itself, which the activists claimed was corrupt.

An estimated 8,000 people heeded the call from the three main labor unions to demonstrate in the country's economic capital, as relations between the labor movement and the government worsened. "We demand the protection of our standard of living," declared one sign carried by protesters. "No to the raising the age or retirement," said another, anticipating controversial planned reforms of retirement benefits.

Faced with unrest in 2011 during the Arab Spring inspired protests, the previous government raised salaries and benefits, nearly bankrupting the country. The budget deficit rose to 7 percent of GDP in 2012 as subsidy spending rose to $6 billion a year.

Under pressure from international lending institutions, it fell to the newly elected Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane to end subsidies on gasoline and gradually reduce them on diesel.

The unions have opposed these moves, saying it hurts low income groups. "The government is attacking our standard of living by raising gasoline prices by 25 percent in the last 15 months alone," Miloudi Moukharek, head of the Union of Moroccan Workers told The Associated Press ahead of the demonstration. "Reform should not be carried out on the back of the poor."

On Saturday, Benkirane told supporters the opposition parties were exploiting the union protests for their own ends. .

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