World News

Two Student Protesters Killed in Nicaragua Church Siege

Posted July 14, 2018 7:58 p.m. EDT

MEXICO CITY — Paramilitary forces backed by Nicaragua’s government killed two people early Saturday during a 12-hour siege on a Managua church where student protesters had sought refuge, a Catholic Church official said, in an episode that underlined the country’s escalating political unrest.

The assault came as the paramilitaries sought to retake the nearby campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, which students have occupied for more than two months during nationwide protests demanding democratic reforms and the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

About 100 students along with priests and journalists were holed up in the Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy, enduring hours of gunfire until church mediators secured their release shortly after daybreak, said Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solórzano, the archbishop of Managua, who confirmed the deaths.

Ortega, who returned to power 11 years ago after leading a revolutionary government in the 1980s, has faced widespread public anger after enacting unpopular social security changes three months ago and then violently suppressing peaceful demonstrations.

Since then, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have engaged in a broad-based uprising against the government, marching in the streets and building barricades to thwart the masked paramilitary forces, which human rights groups blame for many of the roughly 260 deaths during the unrest.

The government has accused the protesters of trying to mount a coup, and Ortega has rejected a proposal by the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference to hold early elections in March. While demonstrations have been largely peaceful, protesters at the barricades have armed themselves with homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails. Police officers have been among those killed.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission said Wednesday that 264 people had been killed since the protests began and that the violence has intensified since the beginning of this month, particularly after the government began sweeping through towns to dismantle barricades. Thirty-four people had been killed in the previous week alone.

In a new push to pressure Ortega, the broad-based Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which includes student, business and farm groups, convened three days of action this past week. Thousands of people marched through the streets of Managua on Thursday, and the city was paralyzed by a general strike on Friday.

The paramilitary operation at the National Autonomous University began Friday afternoon. As the students realized they were outnumbered, they sought safety in the Divine Mercy church on the edge of the expansive university campus, Brenes said.

Mediation by the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference allowed the evacuation of 14 injured students Friday night, but the paramilitaries’ firing continued well into Saturday morning.

Brenes told reporters that church negotiators spent much of the night securing the support of the president’s office to enter safely. At 7 a.m., Brenes, another church official and human rights monitors arrived with buses and ambulances to evacuate the students.

“We have asked for security but, well, we don’t have security,” he said of the paramilitary attacks. “We are all here running the risk of danger.”