DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We are following deadly unrest in the nation of Nicaragua. Student protesters are regrouping there this week after the government tried to steamroll a major protest camp. Now, students have been protesting since mid-April. They are protesting changes to a public pension plan that affects much of the population. The government's main response to this has been violence, and almost 300 people have died in clashes so far, according to human rights groups. Now the protesters are calling for President Daniel Ortega to be removed from office. Just over this past weekend in attacks, 10 people were killed across the country and some protesters were pinned inside a church for 15 hours. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following all of this, and she joins us this morning. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
GREENE: Can you start with this siege in this church? It sounds like it lasted 15 hours. There were witnesses saying that there was gunfire and mortars in the air all night. I mean, this is getting tense. How did it get to this point?
KAHN: Yeah. It was very, very tense. The church is located at the far end of the National Autonomous University in Managua. That's where the students have holed up for the last two months. They've set up barricades and been fighting with pro-government forces and police, and they have a rudimentary field hospital there. So when that gunfight started on Friday night, the students took cover in the church. It went on, as you said, through the night. High-level bishops in the Catholic Church, you know, desperately tried to negotiate with government officials to get the students out. Finally, they were bussed out to waiting relatives and cheering supporters. And then there was another incident of violence on Sunday in some communities outside the capital, especially in the city of Masaya, where residents have set up these barricades and have been fighting off paramilitary groups there. And the government launched what they called Operation Cleanup to remove the barricades, which they say are hurting local businesses.
GREENE: Carrie, I mean, how much of this government response is being ordered by the President Daniel Ortega? I mean, it's, God, such a familiar name in Nicaragua. He led the country for a decade back when the Sandinista rebels took power in '79. He's been president again since 2007. What is his direct involvement here, and what is he saying?
KAHN: Well, in public, he's not saying a lot. He and his wife, who is the vice president and the chief spokesman for the government, they run the country. So they are controlling this. They've called the students terrorists and criminals, and they point to the number of police that have also died during the skirmishes and damages at the university and weapons found on campus. They say this is proof that the protesters are illegitimate and they need to be stopped. You know, in recent years, Ortega and his wife have really consolidated power in the courts, the congress, the media, everything. And these protests as, what you said, started back in April as opposition to the Social Security tax increases, have really morphed into this widespread call against their increasing authoritarianism, and for their ouster and early elections to be called in March.
GREENE: But, important here, I mean, this is becoming much more than about a pension plan. This is about a strongman being in power, and you have what sounds like a really resilient group of protesters. How does this end? Who's going to blink?
KAHN: That's really a tough question. The opposition to him is very large and very broad, but, you know, he just continues with the repression. Opponents want these early elections called for next March, but Ortega has pretty much refused that. The Catholic Church has tried to mediate talks between the government and opponents, but those talks are sporadic and haven't been successful. And despite the vocal international condemnation, appeals for calm, everything, sanctions against key government operatives by the U.S., he just appears not to be backing down.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting this morning on that situation in Nicaragua. Carrie, thanks.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.