Nicaragua students freed from church after violent night; two killed | News | DW | 15.07.2018
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Nicaragua students freed from church after violent night; two killed

A standoff at a church in Nicaragua has ended with two people dead. The continuing unrest is the result of months of protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega. The church has stepped in to mediate.

Two young men were shot dead by government forces in Nicaragua at a protest site at a church on Saturday, the clergy said. It comes on the third day of nationwide demonstrations against President Daniel Ortega, a former revolutionary hero now accused of authoritarianism.

The latest violence raises the number of dead to at least nine in the Central American country since Thursday, when protesters intensified their opposition to the government. After three months of unrest, at least 270 people have died in the violence.

"They were shooting to kill," one young protester told reporters at the Managua Cathedral, where students were taken after fleeing the besieged parish church. "It was very hard. They had high-caliber weapons and we had only (homemade) mortars."

In Managua, hundreds of demonstrators on Saturday took to the streets in a protest march, demanding justice and early elections.

Nicaraguan students protesting (Getty Images/AFP/M. Recinos)

Waiting for students to arrive from the University in Nicaragua

"Ortega wants us down on our knees. But he has not realized that this already has gone so much further than any amount of fear we could have," activist Azahalea Solis said.

The latest turn of events comes after a general strike on Friday and a peaceful procession by thousands on Thursday.

"They are telling us that we have two dead and several wounded," Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said upon reaching the besieged parish with Vatican envoy Stanislaw Waldemar Sommertag. "This hurts us a lot."

The events brought widespread condemnation from organizations around the world. Those calling for a truce and an end to violence include the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and officials from the United States, Brazil and Chile.

Church mediates release

After a night of gunfire and fear at the church compound, religious leaders mediated the release of dozens of students. With their fists raised and waving Nicaraguan flags, the freed students passed hundreds of supporters cheering on the road as motorists honked horns.

"Long live the students!" they shouted.

Church leaders said about 20 people had been people wounded.

Cardinal Brenes after meeting President Ortega in Managua (Reuters/O. Rivas)

Cardinal Brenes deplores the loss of life

Brenes said the government was "solely responsible for these actions," and called on it to guarantee the students' safety.

He said communications lines needed to remain open, even when the government was assailing the clerics attempting to mediate the dispute as "murderers" for working with protesters.

"We have said many times: not one more death," the cardinal said.

The students had been holed up at the church since Friday and came under attack late that night following an assault on the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua next door, a last bastion of student resistance.

"They want to kill us!" the students shouted, calling for help and saying they were surrounded. Their pleas came as gunfire continued around midnight, according to live broadcasts of local journalists trapped in the church.

Months of unrest

Political tensions in Nicaragua have soared since protests against a now aborted pension reform began on April 18 and grew into general opposition to Ortega and his government.

Nicaragua Protest in Managua (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Herrera)

Students have been protesting for months

Students have been encamped at the university since the protests began, and a medical professional reported several injuries after pro-government forces opened fire.

"The escalation of violence against civil society, with physical aggression against the clergy, journalists and human rights defenders, is unacceptable," said Brazil's Foreign Ministry.

Even as Ortega was calling for peace, Nicaraguan forces on Friday attacked a neighborhood in the opposition bastion of Masaya, killing two.

He and his supporters began a procession from the capital to the opposition stronghold, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south. One of the dead on Friday was a policeman, a local rights group representative told the AFP news agency.

The rally celebrated the June 1979 "retreat" that saw thousands of guerrillas withdraw from Managua to Masaya to regroup, before securing victory on July 19 when dictator Anastasio Somoza left Nicaragua.

A masked government supporter dressed in military fatigues (Reuters/O. Rivas)

Supporters of the government let their feelings show

However, on Friday, protesters erected barricades to slow Ortega's procession.

Where he was once hunkered down with allies in Masaya fighting against a dictatorship, the 72-year-old Ortega is now the one despised in the rebel heartland.

At the rally in Masaya, Ortega accused the opposition of acting "with venom and hate," and appealed for a return to "the road of peace."

"The government is hardening more and more every day," Vilma Nunez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), told AFP.

On Friday, police arrested opposition leader Medardo Mairena and accused him of being a "terrorist" who organized and ordered an "attack" that killed police officers and a protester.

The opposition Civic Alliance, however, denounced Mairena's detention as an "act of intimidation."

The opposition is demanding either early elections or the resignation of Ortega and his wife.

av/sms  (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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