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Ortega rep: 'Every effort' being made in Nicaragua talks

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — A representative of President Daniel Ortega said the government is working in good faith to find common ground with the opposition as talks on defusing Nicaragua's political standoff finished a third day Friday without deals on key sticking points.

The first public comment from Ortega's camp since the negotiations began Wednesday came as a small group of university students held an anti-Ortega demonstration, defying a de facto ban on opposition protests since September after hundreds died in unrest last year.

Sandinista Front lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, a member of Ortega's delegation, told journalists before discussions began for the day that the talks are advancing and "there is a common will to work and achieve results."

"The government is making every effort. ... We are sitting down with all the will in the world to achieve agreements," Navarro said. However, asked about opposition demands for the presence of international "guarantors" at the talks, he rejected the idea at least for the near term.

"There cannot be guarantors right now," Navarro said. "If we have still not reached agreements, what is there to guarantee?" The opposition group Civic Alliance said it hoped to win approval of a so-called roadmap, with the goal of negotiating with "clear rules of the game."

The dialogue at a business institute south of the capital, Managua, is a kind of restart to previous talks that broke down last summer seeking to find a way to put an end to the crisis. Talks concluded for the day Friday with negotiators still working to establish the rules for the negotiations. They agreed to continue meeting Monday through Friday next week.

At least 325 people were killed last year, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as protests beginning in April were met by a deadly crackdown by security forces and armed, pro-government civilian groups.

Ortega opponents accused him of increasingly authoritarian rule and demanded he leave office and allow early elections; government officials alleged that protesters were effectively attempting a coup d'etat.

Large and widespread demonstrations all but vanished following the crackdown, but political tensions remain high with hundreds of people behind bars and thousands more in hiding or exile. At the Central American University's campus in Managua on Friday, perhaps a few dozen students, some with their faces masked by bandannas, rallied and shouted slogans such as "Long live a free Nicaragua!" and "Democracy yes, dictatorship no!"

"They were students, not criminals," they cried, in allusion to young people killed in 2018 when police broke up demonstrations including with live rounds. Police were deployed to the campus, and a journalist was struck by a rubber bullet but not seriously hurt. There were no other reports of any injuries.

Unlike last year's talks, which were broadcast live, this week's dialogue has been held behind closed doors, leading to speculation and rumor in the absence of much concrete information about their content.

Navarro acknowledged that the discussions have been "difficult" but denied there had been any setback or breakdown. "What is said outside is nothing more than a sideshow to make the negotiation tense," he said. "This dialogue has many enemies."

Mario Arana, a businessman and one of the Civic Alliance negotiators, said they are trying to narrow the gap on the 12-point "roadmap," of which nine points have already been agreed. Both sides have agreed not to release details prematurely, he added, and "we are probably heading toward greater secrecy."

Besides the presence of international guarantors from an institution such as the Organization of American States, the United Nations or the European Union, the opposition's demands include election reform; the release of hundreds of people it considers political prisoners; a restoration of freedom of expression rights after an effective ban on opposition protests and the shutdown of some independent media outlets; and justice for victims of the crackdown and their families.

Azahalea Solis, a lawyer and alternate negotiator for the opposition, said it is "unacceptable" for police to detain civilians and boost patrols in Managua even as the talks are going on. "It is fundamental for there to be an atmosphere of peace in the country," Solis said. "All of Nicaragua is being held hostage and persecuted."

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