At least 26 killed in pension reform protests in Nicaragua

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Local human rights groups reported that as many as 25 people had died by Saturday.

He also seemed to try to justify what has been a heavy-handed response by the government and allied groups, accusing demonstrators, a lot of them university students, of being manipulated by unspecified "minority" political interests and of being infiltrated by gangsters. Sandinista Youth, aligned with Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), launched counterprotests in support of the reforms. However, one of the first victims was a 33-year-old policeman.

That the protests have occurred "in nearly all the cities of the country, in all the universities" and "have been repressed with violence by the government, means that there is a malaise of the population not only over the reforms but for the way in which the country has been run", Tunnermann said. Some local media reports said a police sniper was suspected to be responsible.

Meanwhile, government supporters have allegedly targeted anti-government protesters and journalists. According to the government, at least 28 police officers have been injured.

The government put the number of dead at "almost 10" by late on Friday.

Riot police charge a barricade during clashes with demonstrators. Meanwhile, four independent television outlets were taken off air on Thursday, although only one now remains closed.

One male student who declined to give his name said the aim now was to see Ortega step down from office.

The social security institute, known as INSS, has been sinking towards crisis.

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"There is a malaise of the population not only over the reforms, but for the way in which the country has been run", he added.

The government's reforms, signed April 18 and set to take effect July 1, increase worker social security contributions by 0.75 percent, increase employer contributions by 3.5 percent, and redirects 5 percent of retirees' pensions to covering costs of health services.

"We can not go into a dialogue if these minimal conditions are not met".

He also accused allegedly US-backed right-wing factions of steering the protests to destabilise the government. The army said they were "providing protection to entities and strategic sites".

"They don't want peace or stability for the country", he continued.

Ortega called for renewed dialogue with the private sector over the social security reform and welcomed modifications to implement the reforms "in a better way".

State-controlled media blamed protesters for the looting, while critics claimed that it was being allowed to pressure the business sector to force the government to end the harsh crackdown. Four hours later, business leaders rejected offer of dialogue with Ortega and demanded a cessation of repression.

Pension cuts triggered mass demonstrations, which have led to several deaths, and now, the government is attempting to control coverage of the protests by shutting down independent media outlets.

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