Managua (AFP) – Nicaragua’s bishops said they were going to the opposition bastion of Masaya on Thursday “to avert another massacre” after it came under attack from forces loyal to President Daniel Ortega.
The city — which this week declared itself in rebellion to Ortega’s rule — was under “disproportionate” attack from police and paramilitary forces, a human rights group said.
The pro-government forces were using AK47s and Dragunov sniper rifles against civilian residents of the town, Nicaraguan Association of Human Rights head Alvaro Leiva said.
The Central American country’s Catholic bishops — tasked last month with mediating an increasingly bloody confrontation between opposition and government — said in a statement that they had decided to go to Masaya “to avoid another massacre, give comfort and pray with our people.”
Riot police and paramilitaries had deployed Tuesday in the historically combative city after its declaration of rebellion.
“I appeal to President Ortega to stop the massacre of the people of Monimbo,” said Leiva, referring to an indigenous neighborhood of the city understood to be the target of the operation.
“It is incongruous to talk about dialogue and to be assassinating the people,” he said.
Cristian Fajardo, one of the leaders of a student movement spearheading two months of protests against Ortega’s rule, said around 500 “hooded and heavily armed” men had moved into the north of the city at dawn on Thursday.
Residents remained inside their homes as riot police and paramilitaries patrolled the streets, firing and removing barricades locals had erected.
Funerals were held for three people killed in clashes in the flashpoint city on Tuesday, bringing to 187 the number killed since protests against Ortega’s government began on April 18.
Ortega’s wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, said her husband “is committed to curbing this wave of terrorism, hate crimes, kidnappings, threats and intimidation.”
The pro-Ortega forces used tractors and tow trucks brought in from the nearby capital Managua to clear barricades from the main road leading to the city on Tuesday.
Masaya, once a stronghold of Ortega’s Sandinista revolution, has been a focal point of protests aimed at forcing him out of office.
A onetime leftist guerrilla, Ortega led the country from 1979 to 1990 and then returned to the presidency in 2007, now serving his third consecutive term.