Managua (AFP) - Activists faced off with Nicaraguan pro-government forces in hours of deadly clashes Thursday amid a nationwide strike to protest government repression of dissent that has left at least 162 dead, including an altar boy.
Despite the 24-hour work stoppage that gave the capital Managua the air of a ghost town, fierce unrest in other areas persisted, leaving at least four dead during pro-government attacks on activists guarding barricades.
Managua's auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez reported that a 15-year-old altar boy from the country's second largest city Leon died after a paramilitary's bullet struck him in the chest.
"God welcomes (him) to the altar of heaven," the bishop tweeted.
He also warned of riot police indiscriminately shooting in the streets of Nindiri, a city 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Managua.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) raised to 162 the death toll from two months of sociopolitical upheaval that President Daniel Ortega's government has met with a brutal crackdown.
Nagarote, 42 kilometers 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.
Another death, the details of which remained unclear, occurred in Masatepe in similar street battles.
And 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.
'No man's land'
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. Buses and taxis were nowhere in sight.
Candy salesman Heriberto Ruiz praised the work stoppage, saying the violence has turned Nicaragua into a "no man's land."
Following reports of the deaths that occurred during what was supposed to be a "peaceful" strike, Baez in a tweet addressed the president directly: "Mr Daniel Ortega, I repeat what I said personally in your face."
"Repressing and killing is aggravating the crisis. People shout in the street, 'Let him go!' Collaborate to find a solution," the bishop said.
The work stoppage comes as Nicaragua's influential Catholic clergy work to rekindle crisis talks.
The bishops on Friday will publicly unveil both their mediation offer and Ortega's response -- something the country has been anticipating for a week.
Foreign Minister Denis Moncada was to head the government delegation at the meeting, said the spokesperson for Ortega's vice president and wife Rosario Murillo.
The church previously called off talks with Ortega after a march led by victims' mothers was violently repressed last month.
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 into a mass effort to pressure Ortega to leave office.
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, demanding he move up the presidential election slated for late 2021.