Nicaragua scraps pension reform in bid to end deadly protests

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Managua (AFP) - Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega scrapped Sunday a contentious pension reform that triggered four days of violence in which two dozen people were killed, but rioting students vowed to keep up street protests until he is ousted.

Since the clashes erupted Wednesday, pitting protesters against security forces and pro-government supporters, 25 people have died, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

"Among the dead are minors, students" and a journalist who was shot dead on Saturday while reporting on the chaos in the Caribbean city of Bluefields, the center said in a statement.

Officials on Friday gave a toll of 10 deaths but have not revised their figure since.

The protests were the worst experienced in the 11 years Ortega has led the country -- one of the poorest nations in Latin America yet also previously a relatively safe one compared to gang-ridden Central American neighbors.

The 72-year-old leftist president, a former Sandinista guerrilla, rules Nicaragua with his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo.

During talks with business leaders, Ortega announced he was revoking the April 16 pension reform of the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security (INSS), "which acted as a trigger that started this whole situation."

He denounced the protesters for acting like criminal gangs.

His government said vehicles were torched and public buildings destroyed in the towns of Leon and Masaya.

- Looting, arson -

The controversial reform would have increased both employer and employee contributions and reduced benefits in a bid to tamp down on a climbing deficit.

Students played a major role in the wave of unrest that met that reform.

Ortega responded with a crackdown that saw the army deployed, independent media muzzled, journalists assaulted and pro-government demonstrators mobilized to counter the protests.

But they failed to contain the situation as looting broke out. And panicked residents rushed to stores and gas stations to stock up for what could they feared could be prolonged turmoil.

Some protesting students said Ortega cancelling the pension reform was no longer enough.

"We are fighting not only for the INSS, we are fighting for all those years of pillaging of the people by the Sandinista regime," said one engineering student in Managua who identified himself as Cristofer.

"The struggle continues. Not a step backward," yelled another student outside the city's Polytechnic University. Others called Ortega a "dictator."

"We are fighting against the oppression that President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo are imposing on us," another student, Amalia Montenegro, told AFP as she gathered food to give to fellow protesters.

"We don't want a war."

Police later conducted a late-night raid on the university's headquarters, sparking chaotic scenes broadcast live on Facebook that saw activists injured.

- Deadly force -

Parts of the capital were strewn with rubble after clashes, and looting was in evidence. In some locations, armed store owners stood guard outside their premises to stop mobs from entering.

Ortega had tough words for the demonstrators, accusing them of acting like gangs "killing each other."

"We must reestablish order, we will not allow chaos, crime and looting to reign," he told business leaders, who had also opposed the reforms.

A doctor treating those wounded in the clashes, Eyel Almanza, said in an interview that police officers were resorting to deadly force.

"The wounds suffered by students have been from firearms. Anti-riot police had been using rubber bullets, but not any more -- they are using round pellets," he said.

Soldiers armed with rifles stood guard at public offices in Managua, as well as in the northern city of Esteli. The army said it was "providing protection to entities and strategic sites."

Police on Thursday said one 33-year-old officer had been shot dead.

- International alarm -

Throughout the protests, journalists have reportedly faced attacks, been temporarily detained and had their equipment stolen.

Four independent television outlets were taken off air on Thursday. By Sunday, only one was still barred.

The unexpected wave of violence in an otherwise relatively tightly controlled country has caused international alarm.

The United States denounced the "excessive force used by police and others," urging Ortega's government to allow journalists to work freely.

The European Union called the violence "unacceptable."

Analysts and business leaders said the protests were fueled by dissatisfaction that went well beyond anger over pension reform.

"This has not been seen for years in Nicaragua," said Carlos Tunnermann, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US.

"There is a malaise of the population not only over the reforms, but for the way in which the country has been run."

Former lawmaker Jose Pallais said "Ortega is making an analysis divorced from reality."

"He's not asking for forgiveness for the deaths, he's not taking measures to halt the repression or disband the paramilitary groups, and he is continuing the threat of using force," Pallais added.

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