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Nicaragua forces retake opposition stronghold

Nicaraguan Special Forces patrol the streets of Monimbo neighborhood in Masaya, Nicaragua, on July 18, 2018, following clashes with armed anti-government protesters. (Photo by AFP)

Nicaraguan government forces have established control over a key opposition stronghold near the capital, Managua, following a long battle with anti-government protesters there who demand the ouster of President Daniel Ortega over an alleged violent crackdown on dissent.

Paramilitary troops loyal to the president with assault rifles drove through the central streets of Masaya, south of the capital, as they honked their vehicles’ horns, and finally flew the flag of Ortega’s ruling party — the Sandinista National Liberation Front — over a main square in the flashpoint suburb of Monimbo on Wednesday.

The development came a day after hours-long fighting was reported between police officers and paramilitary units on the one hand and angry protesters who had set up road blocks and exchanged fire with the government forces.

No verifiable death toll from the Tuesday battle has yet been released. Some locals claimed that “many deaths” and even a “massacre” had happened, but paramilitaries speaking to journalists denied these accounts. Alvaro Leiva, the head of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, claimed some 200 people had fled Masaya as they were being “chased by police and paramilitaries using dogs to track them.”

Paramilitaries flash the victory sign from a truck at Monimbo neighborhood in Masaya, Nicaragua, on July 18, 2018, following clashes with armed anti-government protesters. (Photo by AFP)

The regaining of control over Masaya was an important development in three months of violent unrest against Ortega and his government that have left at least 280 people dead. The rallies began in April after Ortega’s administration attempted to slash pension benefits.

Although the government later revoked the plan, its firm response to violent protest actions and riots prompted broader opposition rallies against Ortega, who led the Sandinista revolution in 1979 ousting Nicaragua’s US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

On Monday, hundreds of people held a protest rally in Managua, demanding justice for the victims of the allegedly violent crackdown on protests against Ortega following the reported killing of 12 more people over the weekend.

Additionally on Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accused government-linked groups in Nicaragua of using “lethal” force against opposition protesters, urging an end to the deadly unrest in the country.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) called on Ortega to work with the opposition to set dates for snap elections in the crisis-hit Central American country. The US-based OAS also passed a resolution that once again denounced “all acts of violence, repression and human rights violations and abuses committed by police, para-police groups and others.”

The crackdown on opposition protesters in Nicaragua has drawn international condemnation for Ortega, who faces his biggest test in office since he returned to power in 2007 after being voted out of office in 1990.

Nicaraguan opposition political parties have called on Ortega to leave office and hold early elections. He has refused to do either so far.

‘US interfering in Nicaragua’

Also on Wednesday, the OAS approved a resolution that urges Managua to “support an electoral calendar,” a formula of calling for early elections instead of waiting until the end of 2021 as a way out of the current growing crisis in the country.

However, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada strongly lambasted the resolution and rejected the early election request.

“What is happening in Nicaragua is a coup d’état and a rupture of the constitutional order,” the top diplomat said, accusing the United States of seeking “interference” in the Central American country.

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