Thousands join peaceful protests in Nicaraguan capital

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Thousands of Nicaraguans participated in rival marches in the capital Managua without incident amid a period of relative calm in the country’s deadly political unrest. 

Protesters on Saturday expressed their support for the Roman Catholic Church and its bishops who have attempted to mediate in the more than 100 days of anti-government protests, and called on President Daniel Ortega to bring forward elections.

“Bishop, friend, the people are with you!” thousands of demonstrators chanted amid a sea of blue-and-white Nicaraguan flags. 

In a speech on July 19, the anniversary of Nicaragua’s revolution, Ortega accused the Catholic Church of aiding “coup plotters” seeking to overthrow him. Earlier in July, a pro-government mob punched and scratched at cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and other Catholic leaders. 

In a smaller protest, Ortega supporters waved red-and-black Sandinista Front flags, marching behind trucks broadcasting songs in praise of the embattled leader. 

Ortega supporters waved red-and-black Sandinista Front flags [Arnulfo Franco/AP]

Hundreds killed 

Hundreds have been killed in political unrest that first gripped Nicaragua in mid-April, with one human rights group setting the death toll at 448 as of last Thursday. 

Another 2,800 people were wounded and nearly 600 disappeared, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. 

Saturday’s marches came amid a period of relative calm, after police and pro-government armed groups violently took control of opposition strongholds in Managua and the southern city of Masaya. Two students were killed when pro-government forces raided a church in which students had taken shelter after being pushed from the Managua university campus where they had barricaded themselves in. 

Four deaths were reported since those operations ended. 

Last week, Ortega denied responsbility for the paramilitary groups that have carried out much of the violence. 

Rights groups – including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – have reported a high degree of collaboration between pro-government gangs and Nicaragua’s national police, and accused them of coordinating actions “to perpetrate violence, repress, harass and persecute civilians”. 

Nicaragua’s unrest began on April 18 with protests against a pension reform plan, which has since been dropped. 

But violent repression has led opposition anger to mushroom into a broad campaign against Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who are accused of running a corrupt dictatorship.  

Protesters have demanded Ortega’s resignation and early elections, but the embattled president has said he will not bring polls scheduled for 2021 forward. 

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