Nicaragua's Ortega starts talks after month of unrest

Managua (AFP) –


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega started talks on Wednesday with the opposition in a bid to quell a month of anti-government unrest that has seen more than 50 people killed.

The Church-mediated dialogue got underway in the capital Managua and involved representatives from university students who are leading the protests against Ortega as well as from business groups and unions.

The unrest was the worst faced by Ortega in his past 11 years as president.

The protests were initially triggered by an aborted attempt to reform the near-bankrupt social security system, but quickly morphed into a street movement demanding Ortega's ouster over a range of grievances. Rights groups say at least 58 people were killed.

The 72-year-old leader, who previously ruled between 1979 and 1990, is a former leftist Sandinista guerrilla who helped overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship but who in later years himself became seen to be autocratic and distant.

In recent years he has increasingly wielded power jointly with his wife Rosario Murillo, who is both his vice president and chief government spokesperson.

Ortega offered the dialogue as a way to bring "peace" back to Nicaragua, one of Latin America's poorest countries, and to restore his authority.

But the students in particular are demanding he and Murillo step down.

Nicaragua's Catholic bishops overseeing the talks bid welcome to the participants after Ortega entered the room to the playing of the national anthem.

The student representatives used the occasion to reject Ortega's portrayal of many of the killed protesters as criminals.

"They were students, not criminals," they yelled at the opening of the dialogue.