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Moroccans hold anti-terror vigil for slain Nordic hikers

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccans gathered Saturday in front of the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Rabat in a candlelight vigil to honor two Scandinavian university students killed in a terrorist attack in the Atlas Mountains.

Hundreds of people brought flowers and shed tears Saturday in a show of opposition to violence and religious extremism. They were honoring 28-year-old Norwegian Maren Ueland and 24-year-old Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, whose bodies were found Monday. Authorities say the hikers were killed by four men affiliated with the Islamic State group.

The killings shocked Moroccans as much as those in Denmark and Norway. "I am deeply touched by the kind reactions of the Moroccan people after the tragic event," the Norwegian ambassador to Morocco, Merethe Nergaard, said in a statement Saturday.

The mourners included ordinary Moroccans joined by politicians, artists and activists. Some held banners saying "Sorry" and condemned the brutal killing, which is unusual in Morocco and revived fears of terrorism.

"Words cannot describe this barbaric crime," said Khalil Bensalmi, in his fifties, who came to the vigil with his two daughters. "This doesn't at all represent Moroccan society or its pacifist culture."

The group first held a vigil in front of the Norwegian Embassy, read a letter in memory of the two women, then held a moment of silence. Many attendees cried. They then quietly departed to the Danish Embassy, where again tears were shed, and candles were lit in honor of the two women, university students passionate about the outdoors.

Ratiba Naji, a housewife, tried to hold back her emotions as she said, "It's horrendous. These girls deserve life. Their parents must be devastated. I am sorry." A torch-lit parade was held in Ueland's hometown in Norway on Friday.

The killings marked the first terrorist attack to hit Morocco since 2011, when a suicide bomber detonated in Marrakech and killed 16 people. More than 1,000 Moroccans have joined IS in recent years, and Moroccan authorities arrested 20 cells with terrorist affiliations between 2017 and 2018.

The hikers' killings triggered fear among Moroccans of a renewed terrorist threat. Samira Laziri, a journalist for national radio, who came to the vigil to protest against terrorism, said, "We thought that we were safe, but sadly there are still terrorist cells in the country and unfortunately we still have a lot of youth who get influenced" by extremist forces.

Thirteen men have been detained in the investigation.

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