MANAGUA (Reuters) - Angry Nicaraguan students taunted President Daniel Ortega with shouts of “murderer” as he spoke on Wednesday at a Catholic church-organised event aimed at negotiating a solution to weeks of deadly protests that have challenged his rule.
The meeting was a rare opportunity for the protesters to directly address the former Marxist guerrilla, and anger quickly bubbled over as the president lamented the violence of recent weeks. At least 49 people have been killed, mostly students, amid demonstrations over social security reforms.
“This is not a forum of dialogue; this is a forum to negotiate your exit,” one student who did not give his name told Ortega at the start of the event, organised by the Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic bishops.
“We cannot have dialogue... because what has been committed in this country is a genocide.”
Ortega talked through the insults. He said all deaths should be investigated and police were under orders not to open fire in the protests, which have turned into the worst crisis of his more than a decade in power.
“Of course the deaths pain us. The death of even one citizen pains us,” said Ortega, harking back to his own fight against authoritarian rule.
Ortega first took office in 1979 after the Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. His government then fought a war against U.S.-backed “Contras” and he was defeated in elections. He was re-elected in 2007.
He has overseen economic growth but is criticized for tight control over police, the courts and Congress. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in April over social security reform, and clashes turned deadly.
The United Nations said last week it believed at least 47 people were killed, mostly students along with two police officers and a journalist. Ortega said two more people were killed on Tuesday.
Demonstrators demand his resignation and accuse him of seeking to establish a family dynasty.
Accompanied by his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega on Wednesday defended the government’s handling of the protests.
He denied protesters had gone missing or were being held as political prisoners, and he demanded an end to demonstrations, saying the unrest was battering the nation’s economy.
In an airport parking lot, people stood beside their cars, listening in silence to a live broadcast of Wednesday’s event. A woman called out names of dead protesters, and others shouted “presente!,” echoing a call from the Sandinista revolution.
Reporting by Diego Ore; additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman