Managua (AFP) - Thousands of Nicaraguans marched, prayed and danced in their capital Wednesday as they turned festivities for a Catholic holiday into a procession calling for peace in their country, gripped by deadly political unrest since April.
This year's August 1 celebration of Saint Dominic, a 12th century Spaniard who founded the Dominican Order and is the patron saint of Managua, came as protesters demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega clashed with the government's brutal security forces.
More than 300 people have died in the past three and a half months, according to rights groups. Ortega puts the toll at 195.
"We want the Lord to grant us peace," said one woman, Jeanneth Sanchez, 55, as she followed the procession behind a tiny portrait of Saint Dominic.
"We have a lot to ask of the saint for Nicaragua. We have suffered a lot from so many things that have happened," said another taking part, Evilina Reyes.
A young man who gave his name as Heriberto said he was hoping for a "miracle" for his country.
Police, unusually, were absent from the march. In previous years they monitored it.
- Clinging to power -
Protesters -- students and youths particularly -- say they are determined to keep up demonstrations to force Ortega's resignation, or at least to hold early elections.
The United States, the Organization of American States and the Vatican all support those demands.
Ortega, though, has dismissed any suggestion he leave power before the end of his mandate in early 2022, saying that to do so would invite "anarchy."
Last month he ordered police, backed by armed and masked paramilitaries, to violently crush protest hubs in Managua and the nearby city of Masaya.
The measure imposed a degree of calm in the streets, but deepened resentment against his rule.
On Tuesday, the president said he had taken the country back from "terrorists."
In a series of interviews with foreign television networks since last week Ortega insists that "the turmoil is over" and things were getting back to "normal."
- Persecution -
Some 1,900 people have been arrested in the protests, of whom around a quarter remain locked up. At least 98 people have been convicted of terrorism and other serious crimes carrying penalties of up to 20 years in prison, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
Dozens of medical staff have been fired from state-run hospitals for treating wounded protesters.
And prosecutors said this week they were investigating 10 opposition figures, including student leaders, on suspicion of supporting the protests.
Some of them took part in Church-mediated dialogue with the government that has stalled since mid-June. Ortega has accused the bishops taking part of collaborating with "coup-mongers" seeking to topple his government.
- Fleeing Nicaragua -
The UN refugee agency is appealing for neighboring countries to take in Nicaraguans who are fleeing the persecution and instability.
Nearly 23,000 Nicaraguans have sought asylum in Costa Rica since April, UNHCR said, explaining that the southern neighbor was "overwhelmed."
Panama, Mexico and the United States have also seen an increase in Nicaraguan arrivals, UNHCR said.
Ortega, 72, headed a left-wing Sandinista government during the Cold War, and returned to power in 2007.
The United States has stepped up criticism of the repression in Nicaragua, with the White House on Tuesday saying Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, "are ultimately responsible for the pro-government parapolice that have brutalized their own people."
Ortega has alleged that the United States is fomenting the violence in his country by financing opposition militias.