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Nicaragua looks to talks to soothe unrest

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Managua (AFP)

Nicaragua was hanging on to the prospect of talks on Thursday to calm anti-government sentiment behind a week of protests in which at least 34 people died.

Tensions in the poor Central American country remained taut, though violent clashes and police repression that marked the early days of the protests had subsided.

Managua's archbishop, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, said that, although President Daniel Ortega had called for talks, nothing had yet been set -- not even the parties who would be involved nor the agenda to be discussed.

"The details are still not defined. I think the government will have to call them to happen. It has invited us to participate in this dialogue," he told reporters.

Ortega has met a range of demands by protesting students and the influential private business sector to allow the talks to happen.

He has ordered dozens of the 200 protesters who were arrested during the clashes to be released, and lifted broadcasting curbs his government imposed on independent media.

The powerful COSEP employers' union said it viewed those steps as conducive to the start of dialogue.

The body, whose support has been crucial to economic stability during Ortega's first 11 years in power, had distanced itself from the 72-year-old president when security forces brutally cracked down on protesters.

It was also behind an anti-government march on Monday that gathered tens of thousands of students, pensioners, employees and ordinary citizens.

- Public resentment -

The wave of unrest, the worst faced by Ortega under his current period as president, was triggered April 18 by pension reforms, but quickly broadened to include a raft of other public frustrations.

They included resentment at the perceived authoritarianism and corruption of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also his vice president.

For many who had supported the left-wing Sandinista revolution that brought Ortega to power in 1979 -- and made him the country's leader for 22 of the past 39 years -- those issues were a betrayal of the popular values he had once promised to champion.

The rough treatment doled out to the protesters hardened public opinion against the president.

On Thursday, rights groups lodged an official complaint with prosecutors accusing Ortega and his officials of responsibility in the 34 deaths and several disappearances that were recorded during the unrest.

Jose Castaneda, one of the freed protesters, told reporters on Wednesday that when police arrested him and others, they "put us in a cell where they continued to hit us. They dragged us along the ground."

Another protester, Gilbert Altamirano said: "we were tortured -- beaten like I have never been in my life. The more we cried, the more they beat us."

- Hopes for talks -

Hundreds of people, many of them youths wearing black and carrying Nicaragua's flag while yelling "Freedom!" and calling for Ortega's ouster, marched late Wednesday to demand justice for those killed and hurt during the protests.

Some warned that they didn't see dialogue as possible yet -- not until Ortega made more concessions, such as having the protest deaths investigated.

"Our dead don't negotiate," they yelled.

Their procession in Managua passed off peacefully, with no intervention from police.

Managua's archbishop was more emollient on Thursday, saying he believed that "the air has been cleared" sufficiently for talks to happen.

"The important thing is that they start. As bishop, I am a man of hope, and I believe in dialogue. We know it is difficult and risky, but we accept the risk for love of Nicaragua," Brenes said.

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