Strike begins in Nicaragua after five die in protest violence

by Maria Isabel SANCHEZ
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A Nicaraguan demonstrator fires a home-made mortar in Managua as part of nationwide marches against the government of President Daniel Ortega

A Nicaraguan demonstrator fires a home-made mortar in Managua as part of nationwide marches against the government of President Daniel Ortega

A day after five people were killed in violence surrounding protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a 24-hour opposition-called strike began on Friday.

Four police officers and a protester died on Thursday as clashes erupted between opposition activists and government forces and their paramilitary allies, taking the death toll over three months of protests in the impoverished Central American country to around 270.

"Let's empty the streets because we want an end to repression and because we want them to go," the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy grouping said a few hours before the strike began at midnight (0600 GMT), referring to Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Alongside the opposition's strike, former left-wing guerrilla leader Ortega has announced his own Friday procession to celebrate a significant event in his coming to power in 1979 following a popular uprising, known as the "retreat."

The controversial procession will head from the capital Managua to the long-time opposition stronghold of Masaya, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the south.

Where once the revolutionary leader Ortega was hunkered down with Sandinista National Liberation Front allies in Masaya fighting the US-backed right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza, the 72-year-old head of state is now public enemy number one in the rebel heartland.

- 'Never surrender' -

In Monimbo, an indigenous Masaya suburb, opposition protestors have erected barricades and vowed to prevent Ortega's procession from passing through.

Banners and placards at the barricades are emblazoned with defiant slogans: "We'll never surrender," "Monimbo resists today, tomorrow and forever," and "no to the retreat."

The "retreat" -- a similar event to the Allied Dunkirk evacuation during World War II -- happened on June 27, 1979 when thousands of guerrillas withdrew from Managua to Masaya to regroup before securing victory on July 19 when Somoza fled the country, ending 43 years of family dynasty.

While Ortega's procession is due to enter Masaya from the north, opposition activists insist a failure to continue on to Monimbo in the south would signal a defeat for the government.

Political tensions have soared in Nicaragua since protests against a now-aborted pension reform began on April 18 before mushrooming into general opposition to Ortega and his government, increasingly viewed as repressive, despotic and nepotic.

The latest bloodshed kicked off three days of nationwide protests against the government, starting with Thursday's march through Managua and due to end with a car caravan through flashpoint areas of the capital on Saturday.

Thursday's fatalities occurred in the southeast town of Morrito as marching protesters, some of them armed, came under attack from police and paramilitaries, and responded with gunfire, said Francisca Ramirez, head of the Civic Alliance.

Police confirmed the death toll but blamed the violence on "terrorist groups" that pretended to be carrying out a peaceful march and opened fire on a police station.

Protesters also abducted nine police officers and attacked the Morrito town hall, the police said in a statement.

Morrito is a town of 6,000 that is home to many farmers who own guns to protect their land.

- 'Scorpion' -

In Managua, thousands of people waving blue and white Nicaraguan flags had marched along downtown avenues in a violence-free procession. Referring to Ortega, many chanted, "He must go!"

Carolina Aguilar, 52, accused the Ortega government of killing protesters with impunity.

"We cannot live with a murderer, with a scorpion that kills us day after day. I would give my life for this end," she told AFP.

In Washington, the Organization of American States convened a session on Friday to discuss the crisis in Nicaragua.

And a commission of the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution accusing the Ortega government of repression.

"The continued violence and oppression of the Ortega regime is reprehensible," said Paul Cook, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs western hemisphere subcommittee.

A Nicaraguan demonstrator fires a home-made mortar in Managua as part of nationwide marches against the government of President Daniel Ortega

A sea of blue and white Nicaraguan flags fills an avenue in Managua during a march in the capital city