After bloody protests, Nicaragua's Ortega says he wants dialogue for peace

Slideshow ( 2 images )

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said on Thursday he would resume dialogue with opposition leaders who are calling for early elections after nearly a year grappling with one of the country’s worst crises since a civil war four decades ago.

An attempt at dialogue over welfare benefits last May erupted into protests that lasted for months, fading only under a brutal government crackdown that left at least 320 people dead and more than 600 people in jail, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ortega said in a speech that he would restart the dialogue with his opponents next Wednesday.

“We are going to negotiate to strengthen peace,” he said, adding that the protests were a conspiracy to oust him from office. The leftist leader also recently initiated talks with the country’s private sector.

Ortega first took power in 1979 after Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. After losing office in 1990, he returned to the presidency in 2007. The next presidential election is due in 2021.

Opposition leader Angel Rocha, who will speak for university students in the dialogue alongside business representatives and politicians, said their pressing demand was for Ortega to release people they consider political prisoners.

On Monday, a farm leader who protested against Ortega last year was sentenced to 216 years in prison, despite a provision in Nicaraguan law to cap sentences at 30 years.

Rocha said the opposition would also push for electoral reform, transparent elections and justice for the people who lost their lives in the government retaliation against dissent.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Peter Cooney