International

Streets deserted as Nicaragua strike begins after protest deaths

Banks, markets, gas stations, schools and shops kept their doors locked among deserted streets as Nicaragua's opposition staged a 24-hour general strike Friday, a day after five people were killed in violence surrounding protests against President Daniel Ortega.

A single merchant sits alone in a deserted street as the Nicaraguan opposition stages a 24-hour general strike
A single merchant sits alone in a deserted street as the Nicaraguan opposition stages a 24-hour general strike (AFP)

Banks, markets, gas stations, schools and shops kept their doors locked among deserted streets as Nicaragua's opposition staged a 24-hour general strike Friday, a day after five people were killed in violence surrounding protests against President Daniel Ortega.

Opposition supporters claimed the strike was 90 percent respected across the country while official media announced business as usual in several trade zones.

In cities such as Leon and Granada, only state-owned Petronic gas stations remained open.

Mercado Oriental, one of the biggest trade centers in the capital Managua with 20,000 businesses, was a complete wilderness with almost every one closed.

"I'm working out of necessity but the strike is a weapon to put pressure on the government because there is no end in sight to this situation," Adolfo Diaz, a 67-year-old shoe shiner, told AFP while sitting alone in a hall at the Huembes market in the east of Managua, normally a bustling hub of some 4,500 businesses.

Some streets were filling, though, with Ortega supporters preparing to join a planned government procession later in the afternoon from the capital to the opposition stronghold of Masaya, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the south, to commemorate a significant event in the president's coming to power in 1979, known as the "retreat."

The strike, called by the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy grouping, comes after the latest bloody episode during three deadly months of anti-government protests in the impoverished Central American country that have left around 270 people dead.

Four police officers and a protester died on Thursday as clashes erupted between opposition activists and government forces and their paramilitary allies in the southeast town of Morrito.

'We want them to go'

The opposition is demanding either early elections or the resignation of Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo, accusing both of corruption, despotism and nepotism.

"Let's empty the streets because we want an end to repression and because we want them to go," the Civic Alliance said a few hours before the strike began at midnight (0600 GMT).

While the will was there to support the civil disobedience action, not everyone has the means to do so.

"If I don't work, I don't eat. It's not a question of not supporting the strike but one of supporting our families. We need this to end so we can work," said 56-year-old cobbler Nestor Larios.

The strike is part of three days of nationwide protests against the government that began on Thursday with a sea of blue and white clad demonstrators marching through Managua and is due to end with a car caravan through flashpoint areas of the capital on Saturday.

But tensions are likely to flare as former left-wing guerrilla leader Ortega performs his annual procession to mark the overthrow of the US-backed right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza.

The "retreat" happened on June 27, 1979, when thousands of guerrillas withdrew from Managua to Masaya to regroup before securing victory on July 19 when Somoza fled the country, ending 43 years of family dynasty.

But where the former revolutionary leader Ortega was once hunkered down with Sandinista National Liberation Front allies in Masaya fighting against the dictatorship, the 72-year-old head of state is now the one hated in the rebel heartland.

'Never surrender'

In Monimbo, an indigenous Masaya suburb, opposition protestors have erected barricades and vowed to prevent Ortega's procession from passing through.

Banners and placards at the barricades are emblazoned with defiant slogans: "We'll never surrender," "Monimbo resists today, tomorrow and forever," and "No to the retreat."

The government is, however, unbowed.

"To the retreat with Daniel... we are going to win peace," said Murillo as she called for Ortega loyalists to mobilize for the procession.

"The march to victory will not be stopped."

Political tensions have soared in Nicaragua since protests against a now-aborted pension reform began on April 18 before mushrooming into general opposition to Ortega and his government.

Thursday's fatalities occurred as marching protesters, some of them armed, came under attack from police and paramilitaries, and responded with gunfire, said Francisca Ramirez, head of the Civic Alliance.

Police confirmed the death toll but blamed the violence on "terrorist groups" that pretended to be carrying out a peaceful march and opened fire on a police station.

Protesters also abducted nine police officers and attacked the Morrito town hall, the police said in a statement.