Nicaragua agrees during crisis talks to allow probe of deadly unrest

In a surprise announcement, Nicaragua's influential Catholic bishops late Friday said rival government and civil delegates had agreed to create a "verification" commission and invite independent international bodies to probe the violence that has left at least 170 people dead. In a twist after a morning session that closed in apparent impasse, the opposing representatives also reached consensus to prepare a plan for removing pervasive road blockades that anti-government activists have built to fend off security forces -- a key government demand. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes revealed the Church had asked President Daniel Ortega to move up the next general election -- a move activists have vehemently called for -- to 2019 from the currently slated 2021. The president did not concretely answer, instead telling the bishops "we reiterate our full readiness to listen to all the proposals within an institutional and constitutional framework." The leftist leader has in the past expressed no intention of stepping aside. Bishops were to reconvene government and civil representatives Saturday morning to discuss "the process of democratization of the country." Nicaragua's descent into chaos was triggered on April 18 when relatively small protests against now-scrapped social security reforms were met with a government crackdown. Those demonstrations mushroomed into a popular uprising, with anti-government protesters facing off against police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries. Under the new agreement Managua would urge the presence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -- an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States -- to investigate "all deaths and acts of violence, the identification of those responsible and a comprehensive plan for the victims so that effective justice is achieved," Brenes said. The country would also allow in the United Nations Commission for Human Rights as well as a European Union delegation. Those three bodies would accompany a new "verification and security commission," according to the agreement, "always with the Catholic Church as witnesses and mediators." Brenes said that "national dialogue calls for the cessation of violence and threats wherever it comes from." Just prior to the bishops' announcement, the country's Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) raised the death toll from the months of unrest to 170. - 'Unprecedented savagery' - Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, heading the government delegation, had earlier affirmed that Nicaragua was suffering "an unprecedented savagery; a wave of crimes that dismays, that frightens." But he stopped short of laying any blame on forces loyal to Ortega, saying police and public workers have fallen victim to the violence. The government representatives also lamented the fact that Nicaraguans cannot go out after dark, accusing anti-government protesters of aggravating insecurity. It is, however, widely understood in Nicaragua that the virtual curfew stems from fear of roving armed gangs loyal to the president, who the population accuses of plunging the country into "dictatorship." "We are experiencing a wave of violence the government unleashed," Carlos Tunnermann, a civil alliance representative, said in the morning roundtable. Activists have erected blockades on more than two-thirds of the country's roads in a bid to fend off Ortega-backed forces. The makeshift roadblocks have wreaked economic havoc, halting the delivery of goods and thwarting regional trade. The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) estimates the country could lose up to 150,000 jobs by the end of the year if the crisis persists. The church had launched earlier talks with Ortega but called them off after a march led by victims' mothers last month turned deadly at the hands of Ortega-backed forces. The embattled president's Sandinista guerrilla forces ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, and the leftist leader has remained a major political force ever since. He is currently serving his third consecutive executive term, due to expire in 2022. Nicaragua's government wants protesters to remove road barricades before holding a national dialogue or having international groups enter to support negotiations Truck drivers rest under a truck while waiting for protesters to clear a roadblock in Diriamba, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Managua