A demonstrator behind a barricade fires a homemade weapon toward police in Masaya, Nicaragua. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

Nicaraguan police and pro-government militias sought to reassert control Tuesday over a city that had declared a breakaway government the day before, prompting clashes with protesters that left at least three people dead, according to human rights workers.

Masked gunmen in civilian clothes and riot police descended on the city of Masaya. Video from the scene showed protesters shielding themselves behind street barricades amid gunfire.

Government forces descended a day after protest leaders in Masaya announced that they didn’t recognize Ortega’s leadership and that they would create a commission to govern the city.

Masaya, about 15 miles south of the capital, Managua, was a bastion of support for Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista rebels, who overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. For the past few weeks, Masaya has been controlled by protesters opposed to Ortega, who is now president. City hall is abandoned, and police hunker down in their barracks.

The protest leaders say they don’t recognize Ortega’s government, which they blame for the deaths of more than 200 people in civil unrest over the past two months. They declared a five-member “junta of national salvation” to administer Masaya, including cleaning up trash and restocking food in a city of blocked streets.

“What we are doing is making it official,” Yubrank Suazo, a coordinator of the protest movement in Masaya, said Monday of the new governing commission. “In fact, Masaya has not recognized this government for weeks.”


Demonstrators in Masaya take cover as police fire at them. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

The events in Masaya represent the growing divide between Ortega, in his third consecutive term, and vast swaths of Nicaragua as violence spreads. Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, have held near-total power for years, but protests in April over changes to the social security system quickly morphed into a nationwide movement demanding democracy and justice. The movement gained strength after police and pro-government militias responded with violence against protesters.

On Saturday, in one of the deadliest incidents since the unrest began, gunmen set fire to a building in the Carlos Marx neighborhood of Managua and burned alive a family of six, including two young children, who were trapped inside, according to neighbors and witnesses.

Cinthia Velasquez, a member of the family who survived the fire, said she woke to noises early Saturday morning and looked outside to see masked gunmen accompanied by police. The men broke down a gate, locked the family inside and started firing and hurling molotov cocktails, she said.

Her father, Oscar Velasquez, a 47-year-old Protestant pastor who made a living selling mattresses, died in the blaze, along with his wife, Maritza Lopez, and their son, his wife, and two children, ages 3 and 3 months old.

“We couldn’t save them because when people began to leave their houses to help, police shot at us,” said Nahun Doña, a neighbor who saw the fire.

Relatives and neighbors said they did not know why government forces attacked the family. The neighborhood is a stronghold of protesters and filled with barricades. Some speculated that police wanted the building as a sniper post and the family refused to move.

Foreign Minister Denis Moncada Colindres denied that security forces were involved in the fire and attributed the crime to “criminal groups that are prowling the neighborhood.”

But such ongoing violence has frustrated attempts at dialogue.

On Monday, leaders of student protesters and civil society groups in Managua said they were ending negotiations with Ortega’s government, at least temporarily, because the president had not invited the United Nations, European Union and human rights groups to join the discussions.

“We cannot keep talking with this government, which does not have political will in terms of human rights,” said Azahalea Solis, a civil society member involved in the talks, according to the La Prensa newspaper.

Ortega’s government said in a statement that during the dialogue, its delegation had raised “our gravest concern about the tragic escalation of violence that our Nicaraguan people are suffering.” The government said discussions would continue and that it would work “without rest to stop the violence and reestablish our safe and secure way of life.”

In Masaya, which has been the scene of street battles between police, militiamen and protesters, some 20 people have been killed in recent weeks, according to human rights groups.

“Masaya is on strike, there is no presence of the central government, nor of the municipal government, and it’s logical that facing so much repression and death, the population does not feel represented,” said Alvaro Leiva, director of the Nicaraguan Association for the Defense of Human Rights.

Partlow reported from Mexico City.