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Nicaragua suspends planned welfare overhaul to end protests



MANAGUA (Reuters) – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said Sunday that a planned overhaul of the social system that triggered days of deadly protests was canceled when he tried to end his government's biggest crisis.

Ortega has been on the defensive against the plan to increase workers' contributions to social security and reduce pensions since the demonstrations began on Wednesday. The ensuing riots have killed at least seven people and triggered looting and panic buying.

The Pope, the US government and business leaders urged Ortega to stop the violence before he appeared on television and said the measures approved last week would be withdrawn.

"The previous resolution of April 1

6, 2018, which was the resolution of this whole situation, is revoked, annulled, set aside," said Ortega.

The government argues that changes in the welfare state are needed to strengthen Nicaragua's finances, and Ortega said that talks would be held to draft a new plan to strengthen the social security system.

But the government was stung by protests that claimed at least 25 lives, according to a human rights group. The shops in Managua were looted at the weekend, Reuters witnesses said.

Late Saturday night local media reported that a reporter had been shot dead during a live broadcast from Bluefields, a city on the Caribbean coast that was affected by the riots. Graphic material from the incident soon spread to local and social media.

The police's crackdown on protesters and inhibitions in some media has led to a broader criticism of Ortega in recent days, who has tightened the country's institutions eleven years since his second inauguration.

The US State Department called for a "broad dialogue" on Sunday to end the dispute and restore respect for human rights, urging the government to allow the media to operate freely.

A man watches a television broadcast by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who addresses the audience after protesting against reforming the pension plans of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) in Managua, Nicaragua on April 22, 2018. REUTERS / Jorge Cabrera [19659011] "We condemn the violence and excessive violence exercised by the police and others against civilians who exercise their right to freedom of expression and assembly," said the US State Department spokeswoman, Heather Lauert.

Lissett Guido, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said there are seven confirmed deaths and that the number is likely to increase. The government had reported "almost 10" late Friday.

Marlin Sierra, director of the human rights organization CENIDH, said he has recorded 25 deaths, mainly caused by firearms and rubber bullets. This number could not be independently verified. Most of the dead were between 15 and 34 years old, she said.

Pope Francis called for an end to violence on Sunday, calling for differences to be resolved "peacefully and responsibly".

Videos and photos published on Nicaraguan media showed people willing to defend their business, while others formed lines to supply gas and food in the event of bottlenecks.

Nicaragua has been one of the most stable countries in Central America, largely avoiding the riots of gang crime or political upheavals that have occasionally afflicted Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in recent years.

But the leading Nicaraguan business lobby COSEP has supported peaceful protests against the government, saying that it will not hold talks with Ortega to review the social security plan until it ends police repression and restores freedom of expression.

Slideshow (16 images)

Ortega, a former opponent of the Marxist guerrillas and the Cold War in the United States, has presided over a phase of stable growth with a mixture of socialist politics and capitalism.

Critics accuse Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, of establishing a family dictatorship. The country remains one of the poorest in America.

reporting by Oswaldo Rivas; Additional reporting by Miguel Gutierrez; Letter from Dave Graham; Arrangement by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney


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