Nicaragua's powerful Roman Catholic bishops announced Monday they are engaging in talks to resolve a crisis that has left scores dead in the wake of a crackdown on anti-government protests in the strife-torn central American country.
At least 51 people have been killed in almost a month of protests, initially over proposed cuts to social security benefits that have since been scrapped.
The unrest has since morphed into broader discontent with the leftist government of President Daniel Ortega.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the archbishop of Managua and head of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference, said a national dialogue would begin on Wednesday, "even though the circumstances for dialogue are not the best."
Brenes told a news conference the talks would deal with issues designed "to pave the way for democratization" in Nicaragua.
The government in Managua earlier agreed to a visit by a regional human rights body to investigate the violence, the head of the Organization of American States said.
The bishops had insisted the rights investigators be allowed into the country before agreeing to the talks, initially proposed by the government and in which the bishops will act as mediators.
"It is a positive step, but it is a first step. There is still a long way to go to resolve the crisis," former Nicaraguan foreign minister Norman Caldera told AFP.
"I have great hopes in the results that the bishops can achieve in a dialogue," before the country enters into a "frightening" wave of violence, the ex-minister said.
- Army distances itself -
The government's overture came after Nicaragua's army appeared to distance itself over the weekend from Ortega, who is facing the worst protests since he returned to power 11 years ago.
At least 51 people have been killed since the protests erupted in mid-April.
Ortega had accepted the notion of talks in the early days of the crackdown, but the church deemed he had not fulfilled conditions in which they could be held, among them the visit by the rights group.
On Friday, he wrote to the Bishops Conference, saying he had accepted the conditions.
"We are all ready to attend your call for dialogue at the earliest possible date, for the peace of all Nicaraguans," he wrote.
The brutality of the repression by security forces, and arbitrary arrests of protesters, has sparked outrage and fuelled nationwide protests.
- Rights investigation -
In a statement released by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, Nicaragua's Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said his government has consented to a working visit by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights "as soon as possible."
The visit aims "to observe 'in loco' the human rights situation in Nicaragua in the context of the events from April 18 to the present," the statement said.
Nicaraguan international law expert Mauricio Herdocia said the presence of the rights investigators would bring "an element of credibility, trust and clarification" to the situation.
The protests pose a serious challenge to the authority of Ortega, 72, who has ruled Nicaragua for the past 11 years and before that from 1979-1990, after overthrowing the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
The United Nations rights office on Friday asked Nicaragua to allow it to carry out an investigation into "credible" reports that at least 47 people, most of them students, have been killed since the series of protests began.
Protests continued Monday with anti-government demonstrators setting up roadblocks around the country.
On Sunday, thousands of people marched in the city of Masaya -- the birthplace of the Sandinista revolution 40 years ago -- after violent clashes with security forces there late Friday.
Protests in Nicaragua were initially over proposed cuts to social security benefits that have since been scrapped; now, they have morphed into broader discontent with the leftist government of President Daniel Ortega
A memorial in honor of Heriberto Rodriguez, one of the more than 50 people killed in Nicaragua since the protests erupted in mid-April