College Students, Civilians Under Siege in Nicaraguan Church as Protesters, Pro-government Militia Clash in Neighborhood

Nicaraguan police pose with President Daniel Ortega, in Masaya, Nicaragua, on Friday. (Associated Press/Cristobal Venegas)
Nicaraguan police pose with President Daniel Ortega, in Masaya, Nicaragua, on Friday. (Associated Press/Cristobal Venegas)

Dozens of Nicaraguan university students remained trapped inside a Catholic church early Saturday as pro-government militias fired for hours overnight near the church and police sealed off the neighborhood.

The students – along with priests, doctors, journalists, and other civilians – spent a harrowing evening under siege inside the Church of the Divine Mercy, hemmed in by gunfire. At least seven injuries were reported, primarily gunshot wounds. 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.

The standoff was the latest in a series of clashes between government forces and protesters who are demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and a return to democracy in Nicaragua. In recent weeks, protesters erected barricades in cities across the country to keep out government forces, including at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, 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, earlier this 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 university, 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, 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.