MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hundreds of opponents of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega are in hiding in safe houses and planning their next steps to push for his resignation after Ortega loyalists, supported by police, took over a stronghold this week.
Police and armed Ortega supporters stormed the Monimbo suburb of Masaya city on Tuesday, tearing down cobblestone barricades erected during bloody protests in which at least 277 people have been killed since April.
Speaking from hideouts, leaders of the protests said they were planning demonstrations and would seek more international pressure on Ortega’s government. Hundreds of protesters were in hiding, they said.
“No one surrenders here,” said one of the leaders, who escaped on Tuesday from Monimbo, about 19 miles (30 km) south of Managua, after clashes between pro-Ortega forces carrying automatic weapons and youths wielding home-made mortars.
“This is like a break and we will return,” said the young man, who requested anonymity. He is sharing a house with several others who escaped Tuesday’s clashes.
Human rights group CENIDH said two people were killed on Tuesday in Monimbo, a policeman and a 17-year-old boy. More than 200 people are imprisoned across the country as a result of the protests, the group said.
“President Ortega has shown time and again that he will stop at nothing to crush all those who dare to oppose his government and anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way,” Amnesty International’s Americas Director Erika Guevara Rosas said on Wednesday.
An offensive at the weekend on a university campus that had been a center of protests led to at least one fatality.
The demonstrations against the government of Ortega began in mid-April in reaction to proposed cuts to social security benefits, but the government’s heavy-handed response sparked a wider challenge to Ortega’s rule and mounting international criticism.
Ortega is a former Marxist guerrilla leader who has held elected office since 2007 and also ruled the country from 1979 to 1990. The current violence erupted after years of calm in Nicaragua and is the worst since his Sandinista movement battled U.S.-backed “Contra” rebels in the 1980s. The 39th anniversary of the revolution is on Thursday.
The government has called the protesters terrorists seeking a coup d’etat. Pro-government media posted images on Twitter of masked men in civilian clothes and Sandinista colors armed with assault rifles celebrating the “liberation” of Masaya, which played an important role in the Sandinista revolution.
Authorities have intensified the clamp-down to clear the main protest strongolds. The international community has condemned the government’s actions, but some residents welcomed removal of barriers.
“I have a little store, but since this all started, I have not worked for three months,” said Sagrario Morales, a resident of Monimbo.
“Now I’m happy, I’m so happy, I do not want these wretches to come back,” Morales said.
Various organizations have called for rallies on Wednesday throughout the small country of 6.2 million people.
A peasant farmers organization planned a sit-in at El Chipote prison, near the Pacific coast, to call for the release of two of its imprisoned leaders.
In the city of Granada, protesters planned a demonstration to demand the release of an arrested leader. Another group called for a march in front of a university in Managua.
Writing by Michael O'Boyle Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Toni Reinhold