The Nicaraguan government on Tuesday said that forces loyal to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega have seized control of the opposition stronghold city of Masaya, following fierce clashes with activists in the flashpoint neighborhood of Monimbo that rights groups say left at least two people dead.
Police and government-backed paramilitaries launched the organized attack on Masaya, as international calls mounted for an end to months of deadly violence in the Central American nation.
“Today was the turn of Monimbo, Masaya, which now has streets that have been liberated from blockades,” the government said on its Web site, adding that now people can “move freely.”
Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights secretary Alvaro Leiva said that the pro-Ortega forces had taken control of the city after several hours of combat and “excessive use of force.”
At least two people were killed — an adult woman and a police officer, Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights head Vilma Nunez said.
The offensive on Masaya came on the heels of a bloody siege of student protesters holed up in a church in the capital, Managua, over the weekend, suggesting Ortega was intensifying the use of lethal force to quell dissent.
His government says it is carrying out a “liberation” of towns and cities where protesters have been active.
Police and masked paramilitary units toting assault rifles on Tuesday sealed off all roads leading to Monimbo, from which gunfire could be heard. Videos posted on social media showed rebels inside the zone firing back, some with homemade mortars.
State media confirmed the death of the policeman, but gave no other toll from the assault.
A group of journalists, including Agence France-Presse, that tried to enter Monimbo to verify the situation were shot at by pro-government gunmen to prevent them approaching.
More than 1,000 men firing automatic weapons entered the city of 100,000 people early on Tuesday, residents said.
“They’re attacking us from various entry points in Monimbo,” Cristian Fajardo, a leader of a student protest movement, said in a WhatsApp message.
“They’re attacking Monimbo! The bullets are reaching the Maria Magdalena parish church, where the priest is sheltered,” archbishop Silvio Baez wrote on Twitter.
“May Daniel Ortega stop the massacre! People of Monimbo I beg you, save yourselves!” he wrote.
The US warned Ortega against pursuing the assault on Masaya.
It called for a halt to the deadly crackdown on anti-government protests that has left about 280 people dead over the past three months.
“We strongly urge President Ortega not to attack Masaya,” tweeted Francisco Palmieri, the US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs.
“Continued gov’t-instigated violence and bloodshed in #Nicaragua must end immediately. The world is watching,” he wrote.