Managua (AFP) - Activists faced off with Nicaraguan pro-government forces in hours of clashes Thursday amid a nationwide strike to protest government repression of dissent that has left at least 161 people dead.
Despite the 24-hour work stoppage that gave the capital Managua the air of a ghost town, brutal unrest in other areas persisted, with at least three killed during pro-government attacks on activists guarding barricades.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) raised to 161 the death toll from two months of sociopolitical upheaval that President Daniel Ortega's government has met with a brutal crackdown.
The latest three deaths were in the municipalities of Nagarote, Tipitapa and Masatepe, the CENIDH said.
Nagarote, 42 kilometers (26 miles) northwest of Managua, saw hours of fiery exchanges between armed Ortega-backed forces and activists with mortars that resulted in at least one anti-government activist death, the local vicar Juan Lopez said.
In Tipitapa, 20 kilometers north of the capital, heavy clashes ensued when paramilitary gangs attempted to forcibly remove the blockades erected by activists.
Amid the confrontations that saw a bus set alight hundreds of women took to the streets banging on "cazuela" clay pots, waving handkerchiefs and shouting at aggressors to "go away" -- a tactic that ultimately worked, according to local footage.
But the country was otherwise closed for the strike slated to end at midnight, the streets desolate and shops, banks and eateries locked shut.
Images from Managua's normally bustling Mercado Oriental market showed shuttered storefronts. Busses and taxis were nowhere in sight.
Prior to the strike, Nicaraguans rushed en masse to gas stations and supermarkets to stockpile food and supplies.
Jorge Esquivel, 60, said he supported the action called by a coalition of student, business and civic representatives, one of the main groups involved in the now-stalled talks with the government.
"We have to make this sacrifice," he told AFP as he left a supermarket. "In one day we will not die of hunger."
'Return to dialogue'
The work stoppage comes as Nicaragua's influential bishops work to rekindle crisis talks.
The Catholic clergy on Friday will publicly unveil both their mediation offer and Ortega's response -- something the country has been anticipating for a week.
Managua's vocal auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez tweeted that the church supports "the national strike as an act of pressure and social protest."
Bishops previously called off talks with Ortega after a march led by victims' mothers was violently repressed last month.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights voiced "alarm and deep concern" over Nicaragua's "serious human rights crisis" in a statement.
The commission condemned "the excessive use of state force" and attacks on protesters by pro-government paramilitary forces.
Mario Arana, director of Nicaragua's Association of Producers and Exporters, estimated the strike would result in a $25 to $30 million economic loss.
The private sector broke with Ortega after the president unilaterally approved a measure -- since rescinded -- to overhaul that country's social security system. This triggered the unrest that exploded on April 18 into a mass effort to pressure Ortega to leave office.
Mediating the crisis "has taken more time than the situation really justifies," Arana said. The people "are being repressed and this strike is to express discontent."
Activists have erected blockades on more than two-thirds of the country's roads in a bid to fend off Ortega-backed forces.
The makeshift roadblocks have wreaked economic havoc, halting the delivery of goods and thwarting regional trade.
The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) estimates the country could bleed anywhere from 20,000 to 150,000 jobs by the end of the year, depending on the evolution of the crisis.
Ortega's Sandinista guerrilla forces ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, and the leftist leader has remained a major political force ever since.
He is currently serving his third consecutive executive term, due to expire in 2022.
But even some who had fought with Ortega are now turning on him along with his eccentric wife and vice president Rosario Murillo, demanding he move up the presidential election slated for late 2021.