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Shooting Erupts as Nicaraguan Forces Move into Symbolic City

A demonstrator poses for a photo, as he takes part in the funeral service of Jose Esteban Sevilla Medina, who died during clashes with pro-government supporters in Monimbo, Nicaragua July 16, 2018.

Nicaraguan national police and armed pro-government civilians laid siege Tuesday to a symbolically important neighborhood that has recently become a center of resistance to President Daniel Ortega’s government.

Government forces began advancing on Masaya’s Monimbo neighborhood before dawn and within several hours had surrounded the area and pushed closer to single-story homes and artisan workshops about 16 miles southeast of the capital.

The same neighborhood’s residents rose up against strongman Anastasio Somoza in the late 1970s as part of the Nicaraguan Revolution led in part by Ortega himself. But since protests against cuts to the social security system in mid-April became a broader call for Ortega to leave office, Monimbo has again become a center of the opposition.

Ortega's government has dismissed opponents as delinquents attempting a coup d’etat and wants to quell unrest in Masaya before Thursday’s three-month anniversary of the start of protests across Nicaragua. Thursday is also the 39th anniversary of Liberation Day, which marks the overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1979 by the Sandinistas.

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also Ortega’s wife, said Monday it was necessary to “clean” Monimbo and Masaya. She described the opposition as “coup plotters, few in number, malignant, sinister, diabolical, satanic and terrorists.”

Masaya’s police commissioner struck a similarly combative tone.

“The population of Masaya, the population of Monimbo, has asked us to free them from the delinquents and terrorists that have them trapped with their deadly barricades, and we're going to do it at any cost,” said commissioner Ramon Avellan.

Gangs of armed men dressed as civilians appear to be working in coordination with police to remove roadblocks set up by the opposition that have snarled the country’s traffic for months. Last weekend, government-allied forces retook the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua campus in Managua, where students had been holed up.

With gunshots echoing in the background Tuesday, a woman who asked only to be identified as Silvia out of safety concerns said she treated wounded victims in a makeshift field clinic.

Silvia, a member of Monimbo’s April 19 resistance movement, said youth were fighting with homemade mortars to defend the roadblocks erected at the neighborhood’s perimeter, but government forces were heavily armed.

“We need the (Organization of American States), the international organizations to stop this massacre,” Silvia said. “We’re fighting for democracy, for freedom.”

Several hours later she said that pro-government “paramilitaries” had control of a good part of the area and that the opposition had fled into the surrounding woods. “Their firepower doesn’t compare with our homemade weapons.”

Police roadblocks prevented journalists from entering Monimbo.

Managua’s auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop Silvio Jose Baez said via Twitter that bullets in Monimbo entered the Maria Magdalena parish where a priest was sheltering inside.

The government says more than 200 people have been killed since the unrest began, but independent rights groups say the number is higher.

On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said, “The appalling loss of life must stop — now.”

“The violence is all more horrific as armed elements loyal to the government are operating with the active or tacit support of the police and other state authorities,” he said.

On Monday, Nicaragua’s National Assembly, which is controlled by Ortega’s party, approved a law against terrorism.

Colville said that the loosely-worded legislation could be used to target people “who are simply exercising their right to protest.”

Francisco Palmieri, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said via Twitter that the U.S. strongly urges Ortega to not attack Masaya. “Continued gov’t-instigated violence and bloodshed in (hash)Nicaragua must end immediately. The world is watching.”

Nicaraguan political analyst Oscar Rene Vargas said that if the government succeeds in taking control of Masaya “it would be a tactical victory, but not a strategic one because the rebellion is going to continue internally and on an international level.”