Pro-govt forces attack Nicaraguan rebel city of Masaya

Managua (AFP) –


Pro-government forces of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega launched an attack on the Monimbo suburb of the opposition stronghold of Masaya on Tuesday, the Catholic church said, amidst international calls to end three months of violence.

"They're attacking Monimbo! The bullets are reaching the Maria Magdalena parish church, where the priest is sheltered," archbishop Silvio Baez wrote on Twitter.

"May Daniel Ortega stop the massacre! People of Monimbo I beg you, save yourselves!"

Around 40 vans full of heavily armed riot police and paramilitaries entered Masaya from four sides, according to images published on social media by residents.

"They're attacking us from various entry points in Monimbo," Cristian Fajardo, a leader of the "April 19" student movement said in a message sent on WhatsApp.

Bursts of gunfire rang out over the sound of ringing church bells warning locals of the attack, witnesses told radio stations in the capital Managua, 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the north of Masaya.

The US warned Ortega against attacking Masaya and called for a halt to the deadly crackdown on anti-government protests in the Central American country.

"We strongly urge President Ortega not to attack Masaya," tweeted Francisco Palmieri, the US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs.

"Continued gov't-instigated violence and bloodshed in #Nicaragua must end immediately. The world is watching," he wrote.

The operation follows a bloody week in Nicaragua in which students and opposition groups came under attack several times amongst widespread civil action.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged an end to the violence and a resumption of the stalled dialogue with the opposition.

"It's absolutely essential that the violence ceases immediately and that the national dialogue is revitalized, because the only acceptable solution in Nicaragua is a political one," Guterres said from San Jose, alongside Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado.

Ten days ago at least 14 people died -- four of them police or paramilitaries -- after a raid by pro-government forces in the areas of Diriamba and Jinotepe, near Masaya.

Last week five people -- four of them police officers -- died in clashes between opposition supporters and police backed by paramilitaries in the southeast town of Morrito while another operation by Ortega loyalists ended with at least 10 dead -- including four police -- on Sunday in Masaya.

Opposition activists have erected barricades to keep out government forces in and around their bastion, with the indigenous suburb of Monimbo particularly implicated in anti-Ortega resistence.

Some 280 people have been killed in clashes in the impoverished central American country since protests erupted on April 18, initially against a now-ditched pension reform.

That ballooned into wider action against Ortega, his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo and the government, with the influential Catholic church attempting to mediate.

The opposition accuses Ortega of running an oppressive, despotic and nepotic regime and has demanded he resign and that elections scheduled for 2021 be brought forward to next year.

Former guerrilla leader Ortega has been in power since 2007 but also spent 11 years as president after the 1979 overthrow of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.