Nicaragua's government resumed talks with local civil groups on Friday to end two months of protests against President Daniel Ortega's government that have left 164 dead and brought the economy of the poor Central American nation to a halt.
As the talks mediated by the Roman Catholic Church began, there was fresh violence in the capital Managua, with local television showing police firing assault rifles near a university campus. University students have led demonstrations against what they say is Ortega's growing authoritarian rule.
In an early setback to the talks, the government rejected a church proposal to allow two international commissions and a team from the European Union to investigate the killings that have occurred during the country's protests.
Thousands of shopkeepers and businessmen across the country participated in a national strike on Thursday, as streets were deserted and supermarkets, gas stations and corner stores shut down for 24 hours.
Since Ortega's second stint as president began in 2007, the former socialist guerrilla and Cold War-era U.S. foe has increased his control over Nicaragua's courts, electoral body and Congress.
Civic leaders have demanded that Ortega shorten his third consecutive term that ends in 2021 to ease political tensions.
"There is a consensus in our group of the importance of shortening the president's current mandate," said Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a negotiator with the Civil Alliance for Justice, the umbrella organization for the civic groups.
"But our objective now is for authorities to end the repression immediately," he added.
Previous talks were suspended last month after witnesses and rights groups accused government security forces of opening fire on thousands of demonstrators during a truce.
Ortega's government has said protesters are vandals financed by right-wing groups attempting to destabilize it. Ortega has called for protesters to dismantle hundreds of makeshift roadblocks that have strangled domestic trade and curbed commerce.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, which has monitored the violence, said 164 people have been killed in the eight weeks of clashes between pro-Ortega forces and protesters armed with rocks, slings and homemade mortars, with hundreds more injured.
Ortega's surprise decision in April to slash pension benefits to cover a widening social security gap triggered the deadly confrontations, the bloodiest since a civil war ended in 1990 in the Central American nation.
Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista rebel movement in the 1980s, quickly abandoned the planned spending cuts. But the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters fueled nationwide demonstrations against him.