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February 22, 2019

Pro-Ortega supporters invade basilica and harass bishops

Pro-Ortega supporters invade basilica and harass bishops
'Pro-government paramilitaries surround the Diriamba basilica as church leaders attempt to enter the building' - By: AFP MARVIN RECINOS

Hundreds of supporters of under-pressure Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega broke into a basilica in an opposition heartland on Monday and harassed Roman Catholic bishops at the heart of a mediation process.

The attack came a day after at least 14 people died in a raid by a pro-government mob in the areas of Diriamba and Jinotepe, 20 kilometers (13 miles) from the opposition bastion of Masaya, in the Central American country's southeast.

Prior to Monday's invasion of the Diriamba basilica, dozens of chanting government supporters, some hurling insults, blocked a church convoy heading there with Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Apostolic Nuncio Stanislaw Waldemar Sommertag.

"Murderers," "liars" and "sons of bitches" were among the barbs flung the church convoy's way, while others government supporters shouted: "We want peace" and "no more roadblocks."

Protesters in the area had barricaded roads to keep out police.

The influential Roman Catholic church has been mediating between Ortega's government and the opposition to end three months of unrest that has left more than 240 people dead.

Protesters want the resignation of Ortega, whom they accuse of authoritarianism.

Church leaders were surrounded upon arriving at the Diriamba basilica and struggled to enter the building.

They had come from the capital Managua to help liberate a group of people, including volunteer medics, trapped inside the basilica since Sunday's violence and surrounded by pro-government supporters.

"We don't have weapons, the weapon here is prayer," a medic told AFP from inside the basilica. "They were attacking us from outside."

Not only church leaders and medics came under attack. An AFP photographer in Diriamba was struck and robbed of his equipment.

"It was horrible, they took his mobile phone and robbed him of everything," said AFP journalist Isabel Sanchez.

The manager of opposition television channel 100% Noticias (100 Percent News), Miguel Mora, said their journalists were also assaulted and had their equipment stolen while covering the church delegation's arrival.

Ortega, a former leftist guerrilla, first came to power through a popular uprising in 1979 before losing a presidential vote in 1990.

He was re-elected in 2007 but opponents have accused him -- together with his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo -- of establishing a dictatorship characterized by nepotism and brutal repression.

After Sunday's violence, Catholic bishops questioned the utility of continuing mediation efforts.

"What sense does it make to continue with the dialogue if the streets continue to be filled with blood," Brenes said.

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