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US lashes out at 'repugnant' regime violence in Nicaragua

MANAGUA (AFP) - 

The United States on Tuesday accused Nicaragua's government of "repugnant" violence and repression against protesters demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega.

The broadside, delivered in a White House statement, was the strongest international criticism yet made against Ortega and his administration since the unrest erupted a week ago, resulting in at least 27 deaths.

It came as Ortega -- a 72-year-old leftwing former guerrilla leader, who has ruled Nicaragua for 22 of the past 39 years -- sought to calm the street fury directed at him after initially deploying security forces and muzzling independent media.

Following a massive anti-government march in the capital Managua on Monday by tens of thousands of workers, students, pensioners and ordinary citizens, an embattled Ortega has intensified appeals for dialogue.

He has also ordered the release of dozens of protesters arrested during the protests and lifted a broadcast ban on a private TV news channel.

The concessions appeared to be mollifying the country's business elite, which had abandoned a longstanding alliance with Ortega over the violence.

But the situation remained tense and uncertain, with students vowing to maintain their campaign to force Ortega from power and police showing no signs of pulling back.

"The repugnant political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, has shocked the democratic international community," the White House statement said.

The US condemned the violence, repression and the closing of media outlets, it added, calling for "broad-based dialogue and support for the people of Nicaragua, who yearn for the political freedom of expression and true democratic reforms they so richly deserve."

The US embassy has already withdrawn staff family members and non-essential personnel.

The UN's human rights office in Geneva said it had counted at least 25 killings in the crackdown on Nicaraguan protesters, many of which it said may have been "unlawful." It called for investigations.

The European Union and the Vatican have urged talks to restore calm, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the deaths and repression.

A toll compiled from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights and Ortega's wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, puts the number of deaths since last Wednesday at at least 27. Most were protesters, among whom university students and youths figure prominently.

The protests were sparked a week ago by pension reforms aimed at keeping Nicaragua's burdened Social Security Institute afloat by cutting benefits and increasing contributions.

But they rapidly spread and intensified as other grievances over Ortega's rule surged to the fore.

The president hastily canceled the pension reform, but that failed to attenuate the protests.

- 'Out! Out!' -

Monday's mass demonstration against the government was called by the employers' federation.

Some groups marching called for "dictator" Ortega and his wife to step down, yelling "Out! Out!"

Ortega has been taken aback by the protests, the biggest in his last 11-year stretch in power.

Ortega's wife Murillo, who days ago called the protesters "vampires," changed her tune on Tuesday to voice "faith that we are going to go forward united."

Lawmakers issued an unanimous call for "dialogue and peace," according to one ruling-party deputy, Carlos Lopez.

A pro-government rally was being organized for Thursday to show that the president still enjoyed backing from part of the population.

- Coalescing anger -

Mass street protests are rare in Nicaragua, where the army maintains a tight grip on public order.

But dissatisfaction has been bubbling over in recent months.

Frustrations have been voiced over corruption, the distant autocratic style of Ortega and Murillo, limited options to change the country's politics in elections, and the president's control over Congress, the courts, the military and the electoral authority.

In rural areas, anger also stemmed from a stalled plan by Ortega to have a Chinese company carve a $50 billion canal across Nicaragua to rival Panama's lucrative Pacific-to-Atlantic shipping canal.

If the project goes ahead, it would displace thousands of rural dwellers and indigenous communities while dealing a blow to the environment.

- 'People want freedom' -

"People are demanding democracy, freedom, free elections, a transparent government, the separation of powers, rule of law. The people want freedom," former Nicaraguan foreign minister Norman Caldera told AFP.

"If the government doesn't yield, it's going to be very difficult to stop this (the protests)," he said, asserting that the "big majority" of the population was frustrated with Ortega.

"The repressive apparatus is not able to halt protests on this scale," Caldera said.

"This has become a national wave of protests against repression, censorship of the media, reduced civil and political freedoms, and against the abuse of force by some of the authorities," said Juan Felipe Celia, of the Latin America Center of the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council.

© 2018 AFP