Nicaragua's Ortega to attend crisis talks with opposition

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Managua (AFP)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will attend long-awaited crisis talks with the opposition after nearly a month of violence that has left scores dead, officials said Tuesday.

The Central American country's Roman Catholic bishops said earlier this week they would mediate in the so-called "national dialogue" scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

"Tomorrow, from 10 in the morning, once the national dialogue is opened by the bishops, our president will be there, we will be there," said Ortega's wife and government spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo.

Demonstrators and riot police clashed Tuesday in the northern town of Matagalpa, which is ruled by Ortega's Sandinista Front party.

Thirty-five people were wounded in the clashes and at least 10 people had been arrested, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights spokesman in the city, German Herrera, told local TV station 100% Noticias.

The education ministry said on its website that local high schools had been closed as a security precaution.

- Belated rights scrutiny -

Ortega had accepted the notion of talks in the early days of the crackdown, but the church deemed he had not fulfilled conditions in which they could be held.

Among them is a visit by a regional human rights group which has finally been given permission to enter the country to investigate reports of widespread police brutality.

At least 53 people have been killed and some 400 injured in almost a month of protests, which initially broke out over proposed cuts to social security benefits, but morphed into widespread discontent with Ortega's leftist government.

The protests pose a serious challenge to the authority of Ortega, 72, who has ruled Nicaragua for the past 11 years and before that from 1979-1990, after overthrowing the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

The protests that erupted on April 18 were the worst his government has faced, badly shaking his tight grip on power over the country, one of the poorest in Latin America.

Ortega made a series of concessions after sharp domestic and international criticism over the use of security forces to put down the protests, and curbs on independent media to report them.

100% Noticias, a private channel and one of several outlets closed in the media crackdown at the beginning of the protests, said its offices in Managua had been targeted by gunfire.

"A shot was fired from a vehicle," said the channel's head of news, Lucia Pineda, adding that the station received threats from government sympathizers "every day."

Ortega's concessions included abandoning the social security reforms, freeing dozens of arrested protesters, lifting broadcast bans on private TV channels, and offering dialogue.

Many Nicaraguans, though -- especially emboldened university students -- want Ortega to step down.

- Army, business support, cools -

Business leaders, as well as the army, appear to have distanced themselves from Ortega as the protests, and the deadly crackdown, has continued.

Most of the dead have been protesters.

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.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the archbishop of Managua and head of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference who will mediate the talks, admitted during a press conference on Monday that "the circumstances for dialogue are not the best."

Brenes said the talks would deal with issues designed "to pave the way for democratization" in Nicaragua.