Pro-government gunmen and police took control of an opposition stronghold in Nicaragua after a deadly confrontation with demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.
Police and paramilitaries attacked Monimbo neighbourhood in the city of Masaya on Tuesday amid international condemnation of the violent repression of protests in the Central American country.
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At least two people were killed, according to Vilma Nunez, head of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights. Dozens were reportedly wounded.
More than 280 people, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed in political unrest since protesters took to the streets in mid-April over now-scrapped pension reforms.
Ortega’s forces seized Monimbo after several hours of fighting and “excessive use of force”, secretary of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights Alvaro Leiva told AFP news agency.
“They are shooting at houses in an irresponsible way. The message is that anyone who pops their head out will be killed. It’s a message of terror,” said Alvaro.
Managua’s outspoken auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez tweeted: “They’re attacking Monimbo! … Daniel Ortega halt the massacre! To the people of Monimbo I beg you, save your lives!”
¡Atacan Monimbó! Las balas están llegando hasta la parroquia María Magdalena, en donde está refugiado el sacerdote. ¡Que Daniel Ortega detenga la masacre! ¡A la gente de Monimbó les ruego, salven sus vidas! @Almagro_OEA2015 @CIDH @PauloAbrao @AmbCTrujillo @USAmbNicaragua @OACNUDH
— Silvio José Báez (@silviojbaez) July 17, 2018
Demonstrators reportedly fired homemade mortars from behind barricades but were outgunned by the automatic weapons used by pro-government forces.
A group of journalists who attempted to enter Monimbo were reportedly shot at by the pro-government gunmen to prevent them from entering the neighbourhood.
“People have been calling desperately to TV stations and radio stations asking for help,” Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez reported from the capital, Managua.
“They said there was a lot of shooting around – these paramilitary forces were in caravans going around.”
Nicaragua’s national police confirmed the death of one officer at the hands of “armed terrorists”, but made no mention of civilian casualties.
Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, said on Monday it was necessary to “clean” Monimbo and Masaya. She described the opposition as “coup plotters, few in number, malignant, sinister, diabolical, satanic and terrorists.”
Police commissioner Ramon Avellan told reporters he would fulfil an order by Ortega to remove roadblocks that protesters have used to protect themselves “at whatever cost”.
Monimbo has symbolic value as an historical opposition stronghold. In the 1970s, its residents rose up against Anastasio Somoza, who Ortega helped overthrow in the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. In the recent protests against Ortega’s rule, Monimbo has again become a centre of unrest.
International criticism of Ortega has mounted in recent days.
On Monday, UN chief Antonio Guterres called for an immediate halt to violence. The US Department of State issued a statement condemning attacks “by Daniel Ortega’s para-police against university students, journalists, and clergy across the country”.
On Sunday, at least 10 people were killed in areas in and around Masaya, including Monimbo, in raids by pro-government paramilitaries.
The violence came a day after 200 university students were freed from a besieged church in Managua after a 16-hour ordeal in which two were killed.