Two killed as pro-government militia traps protesters in Nicaraguan church
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Two Nicaraguan university students were killed and at least 10 were injured Saturday when pro-government militia fighters attacked a Catholic church and fired on it for hours as police sealed off the neighborhood.
About 150 students spent several harrowing hours under siege inside the Church of the Divine Mercy, hemmed in by gunfire. Priests, doctors, journalists, and other civilians also were among them.
They had been taking part in a protest to demand the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.
Most of the injured students had gunshot wounds, according to church officials, who negotiated an end to the siege and escorted the survivors from the building. The dead students were not identified.
Late Friday, police permitted one convoy of ambulances to drive the wounded to a nearby hospital but kept the rest of the students penned inside until Saturday.
The standoff was the latest in a series of clashes between government forces and protesters who want to oust Ortega and return to democracy in Nicaragua. More than 300 people have died during months of protests in the country.
In recent weeks, protesters erected barricades in cities across Nicaragua to keep out government forces, including at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, or UNAN, which students have occupied over the past two months.
In recent days, gunmen in plainclothes, who appear to be coordinating with police, have been leading a charge to break through the barricades.
Convoys of these gunmen, known as turbas, swept into cities south of the capital, such as Jinotepe and Diriamba, last week and clashed with protesters in attacks that left at least 21 people dead.
On Friday, a large pro-government caravan drove slowly through Managua, with supporters waving red-and-black Sandinista flags from car windows. As this parade passed by the UNAN, clashes began between militiamen and students manning barricades, according to the students.
For several hours, gunshots rang out as students defended their makeshift blockade with some firearms but mostly the rudimentary weapons they carry: rocks, sticks, and homemade mortars.
By late afternoon, many students retreated back to the Church of the Divine Mercy, which is on the perimeter of the sprawling university campus, and had become a triage area for the wounded.
‘‘They have snipers in front and we can’t move,’’ said one student, whose back was grazed by a bullet before the siege ended. ‘‘What we’re seeing is one truck comes and another leaves. They’re bringing more munitions.’’
‘‘They are assaulting the barricades,’’ he said.
By early evening, the paramilitary forces and police had blocked off exit routes from the church, leaving dozens of people trapped, along with three people wounded by gunfire.
On the streets, heavy gunfire rang out and students fought back. For hours, police did not permit ambulances or human rights workers to get to the church.
As the siege dragged on, priest Raul Zamora spoke by phone to Nicaraguan radio appealing for help.
He said that the students had already abandoned the university barricades and that government forces should stop firing on them.
‘‘I don’t know why they want to attack us here,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s like they want to assassinate all the students.’’
‘‘Please, I call on the conscience of the authorities,’’ he said. ‘‘If they have already left the UNAN, why are they attacking here at the church?’’
As the gunfire drew closer to church grounds, many huddled in the darkness on the floor of a downstairs room of Zamora’s living quarters, hoping to avoid stray bullets.
An 18-year-old female medical student who had been shot through the right leg lay on the floor with a fractured femur set in a splint made of sticks and cardboard. ‘‘The pain is unbearable,’’ she said.