U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warns Nicaragua as more killed in unrest

AFP-JIJI

The United States on Tuesday warned Nicaragua to halt violence against opposition groups as at least four more people were killed in unrest that has gripped the country for three months.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said it was “undeniable” that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government was behind the violence, despite his denials.

Pence used Twitter to call on Ortega to “end the violence NOW” and bow to opposition demands to hold early elections. “The world is watching!” Pence added.

A day earlier, Ortega gave an interview to U.S. television channel Fox News saying that he would not step down and would see through his current term to 2021.

He also asserted that “the turmoil has stopped” in his country after offensives over the past couple of weeks against protest hubs and denied his security forces and coordinating paramilitaries were attacking peaceful demonstrators.

Speaking on Venezuelan television, Ortega on Tuesday accused U.S. senators in Miami of being behind the “conspiracy” to try to effect regime change in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

According to a nongovernmental rights group, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, Nicaragua’s death toll stands at 301 since the turmoil started in mid-April. Other groups give higher figures.

An AFP photographer in the city of Jinotega, north of the capital, saw funerals for two of three people locals said were killed by police and pro-government paramilitaries.

Those killed included a boy, said the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

In Managua, a 32-year-old Brazilian medical student was fatally shot while driving home in the middle of the night, one of her professors at the American University in the capital said.

Brazil’s government expressed “profound outrage” at the killing.

In a statement, it demanded the killers be brought to justice and condemned the “disproportionate and lethal use of force, as well as the use of paramilitary groups in operations with security teams.”

Ortega, in his Fox News and Venezuela television interview, spoke only of dozens of police officers killed in the violence. He also denied controlling paramilitaries acting against protesters.

Those assertions prompted Pence to tweet: “State-sponsored violence in Nicaragua is undeniable. Ortega’s propaganda fools no one and changes nothing.”

In his interview with Venezuela’s Tele Sur channel, Ortega said U.S. senators in Miami were bankrolling “criminal gangs” in Nicaragua, with the help of extreme-right groups in the country to try to topple the government.

He also slammed a mooted U.S. law, the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which aimed to curb international loans to Nicaragua unless it can satisfy Washington that it is promoting democracy.

U.S. lawmakers are reportedly mulling a resolution condemning Nicaragua and preparing possible additional sanctions on Ortega’s government.

The Organization of American States has also backed early elections as a way out of the crisis.

But talks between Ortega’s administration and the opposition, mediated by Catholic bishops in the country, have stalled for over a month, with the president refusing to bring forward polls.

For Nicaragua’s 72-year-old president, a former left-wing guerrilla who has ruled over his poor nation for 22 of the past 39 years since his Sandinista rebels toppled a U.S.-backed dictator, the unrest has been the worst he has faced since returning to power in 2007.

The protests were prompted by cutbacks to the social security system, but quickly spread as they tapped into broad disgruntlement with Ortega and his wife, whom he has made his vice president.