Pope appeals for peace in Nicaragua as deadly clashes claim 100 lives

VATICAN CITY/MANAGUA – Pope Francis has called for an end to violence in Nicaragua, where the death toll from weeks of violent unrest rose to 100 this week as President Daniel Ortega rejected calls to step down.

At least 15 people were killed and more than 200 injured this week in one of the worst days of violence since protests against Ortega and his proposed changes in social security. Over 900 have been injured.

Speaking to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday address, Francis expressed his “sorrow for the serious violence, with dead and wounded, carried out by armed forces to repress social protests. I pray for the victims and their families.”

The Argentinean pontiff said the Church was always for dialogue “but this requires an active commitment to respect freedom and above all life. I pray that all the violence ceases and conditions are put in place to resume talks as soon as possible”.

The protests were initially triggered by now-aborted reforms to the near-bankrupt social security system. But the unrest quickly broadened into a rejection by many Nicaraguans of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who are seen as autocratic.

Local human rights organization CENIDH says at least 100 people have been killed since the protests began.

The bloodshed was condemned by the Central American country’s Episcopal conference of Catholic bishops, which called it “organized and systematic aggression”.

The US State Department issued a statement condemning the “government’s violent response to peaceful Mother’s Day marches in Managua and other cities yesterday, including assaults on mothers mourning their children killed since protests began April 18.”

The government and opposition had agreed on Monday to resume peace talks mediated by the Catholic Church that stalled last week.

But the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference announced Thursday that it will not resume the dialogue as long as “the people continue to be repressed and killed” by “groups close to the government.”

Nicaragua’s Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo dies at 92

Ortega, meanwhile, denounced a “conspiracy” by the opposition aimed at “terrorizing” the people, referring to Wednesday’s unrest.

“There are no shock forces or paramilitaries close to the government, so we cannot accept that we are accused of tragic and painful events that we have not provoked and we would never provoke,” he said in a statement.

Installations of the official radio station Radio Ya and a rural credit cooperative were burned and the facade of the national baseball stadium was destroyed.

The unrest poses the biggest crisis ever faced by Ortega, a former guerrilla leader who first ruled between 1979 and 1990 before returning as president 11 years ago.