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September 24, 2018

Nicaragua's Ortega agrees to halt violence, allow foreign probe

Demonstrators hold national flags in support of teenagers who have died in recent protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua June 1, 2018. /REUTERS
Demonstrators hold national flags in support of teenagers who have died in recent protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua June 1, 2018. /REUTERS

The Nicaraguan government and civic groups on Friday agreed to halt all violence, in a major step to end two months of political unrest that has left 170 dead and rocked the government of President Daniel Ortega.

Ortega, however, did not address a call by Catholic church mediators to allow for early elections next year to defuse the gravest political crisis since the country ended a US-fuelled civil war in 1990. His third consecutive presidential term is scheduled to end in 2021.

"The end of all violence is a basic necessity. Nicaraguans don't need any more violence," Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, who is the head government negotiator, told reporters.

Both sides will resume talks on Saturday to address the Church's proposal to anticipate general elections and implement political reforms.

The protests that began on April 18 have also left hundreds injured and ground the economy of the impoverished Central American nation to a halt.

Most of the dead were anti-government protesters who demanded the resignation of Ortega, a former socialist guerrilla and Cold War-era US foe, blaming his administration for the violent crackdown on demonstrations.

Civic leaders said they were satisfied with the agreement that included setting up a international task force to investigate the killings during the protests.

They also agreed for the gradual removal, under the supervision of international organisations, of makeshift roadblocks that have snarled traffic and curbed trade.

"This is a positive agreement that makes us think that violence will not escalate," said Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a leader with the Civil Alliance for Justice, the umbrella organisation of civic groups.

"If conditions are not met, then peaceful civic protests will resume."

The talks, which resumed earlier on Friday after being suspended, were marred by fresh violence in the capital, Managua, and disagreements between negotiators over the international inquiry.

A Reuters witness heard gunfire and saw police advancing with assault rifles in a neighborhood near a university campus.

University students have led demonstrations against what they say is Ortega's growing authoritarian rule.

The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, which has monitored the violence, said 170 people were killed in the eight weeks of clashes between pro-Ortega forces armed with assault rifles and pistols and protesters armed with rocks, slings and home-made mortars.

Ortega's surprise decision in April to slash pension benefits to cover a widening social security gap triggered the deadly confrontations, the bloodiest since the end of the civil war.

Ortega quickly abandoned the planned spending cuts. But the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters fuelled nationwide demonstrations against Ortega, who has been in power for more than a decade.

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