MASAYA, NICARAGUA - Residents in the Nicaraguan opposition bastion of Masaya were on Wednesday holding off an offensive by police and pro-government paramilitaries as fresh violence flared across the Central American country.
Funerals were held for three people killed in clashes in the flash-point city on Tuesday, bringing to 187 the number killed since protests over President Daniel Ortega’s government began on April 18.
“This is horrible. You can’t live in peace anymore, people are dying because of a government that won’t leave,” 40-year-old housewife Ramona Aleman told AFP at the cemetery in the north of the city, as a victim of Tuesday’s violence was laid to rest.
Marvin Lopez was shot in the throat and his friend, Edgar Taleno, said he and his friends had to dodge gunfire from pro-government forces to retrieve his body.
“This is total anarchy. We ask the international community to support us. We can no longer live here, they are massacring people who don’t have weapons,” Taleno said.
Mourners sang Nicaragua’s national anthem and fired a volley of homemade mortars in homage to the victims, blaming government “assassins” for their deaths.
Meanwhile, a pro-government mob early Wednesday burned down the Masaya hotel owned by the family a of key government opponent, student movement figure Cristian Fajardo.
“They entered my business, they poured fuel inside, my uncle was beaten and his head was smashed with the butts of the AK-47s they carried,” said Fajardo.
Riot police and paramilitaries had deployed Tuesday in the historically combative city after it declared itself in rebellion against Ortega’s government.
The government-backed forces entered the city to leave munitions and food for the police, and removed some barricades.
Police in the city are remaining in their barracks, but according to a priest in the Monimbo neighborhood, Augusto Gutierrez, the opposition remain in control of some areas of the city.
The pro-Ortega forces used tractors and tow trucks brought in from the capital Managua to clear barricades from the main road leading to the city.
Anti-government protesters erected new barricades in some neighborhoods overnight, as witnesses said trucks carrying armed men patrolled the streets of the city, 35 km (22 miles) south of Managua.
Ortega’s wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, said her husband “is committed to curbing this wave of terrorism, hate crimes, kidnappings, threats and intimidation.”
Gunfire was heard Wednesday in different parts of the town. Elsewhere, residents in the towns of Jinotepe, Leon, Matagalpa and Esteli reported shootings and attacks by heavily armed men.
“There are situations of extreme violence where they are already exceeding the limits, and the truth is that we find ourselves totally defenseless,” the executive director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, Marlin Sierra, told AFP.
“The tendency is to deepen the crisis,” said Sierra. “We are extremely worried because we see that there is a political will on the part of the state to push for a civil war.”
On Tuesday, the rights group’s head, Alvaro Leiva, said residents were resisting “within the scope of their possibilities” but were under “disproportionate” attack by security forces.
The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Jose Baez, appealed to the government to back off.
“Stop the attack on Masaya. Respect the life of the population,” he tweeted.
The country’s Roman Catholic bishops have attempted to mediate the crisis — but the latest attempt collapsed on Monday, with the bishops and opposition accusing the government of failing to act on a promise to allow international organizations to investigate the violence.
Carlos Trujillo, the United States representative at the Organization of American States (OAS), planned to meet with Ortega on Wednesday.
He met opposition leaders in Managua on Tuesday shortly after arriving in the country.
Masaya, once a stronghold of Ortega’s Sandinista revolution, has been a focal point of protests aimed at forcing him out of office.
A onetime leftist guerrilla, Ortega led the country from 1979 to 1990 and then returned to the presidency in 2007, now serving his third consecutive term.