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Students leading Nicaragua protests demand transition government

MANAGUA, May 18, 2018 (BSS/AFP) - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's time is up and he should step aside to allow a transitional government to take over, a representative of university students spearheading protests against the veteran leader told AFP.

Victor Cuadras, a 25-year-old student in chemical engineering, is one of the students taking part in talks that started this week with Ortega following a month of anti-government protests countered with deadly force by the police.

At least 58 people have been killed, most of them youths, in the unrest which is the worst faced by Ortega since his return to power 11 years ago in the country which is one of Latin America's poorest.

The 72-year-old president is a former Sandinista rebel who previously ruled between 1979 and 1990 after his forces ousted the Somoza dictatorship backed by the US.

He is seen as increasingly autocratic and reliant on his wife Rosario Murillo, who serves as his vice president and government spokesperson.

Ortega and Murillo have gone into the talks that started Wednesday with the aim of restoring their authority and calming the protests.

But the students say it's too late.

"We are calling for Ortega to step down, the setting up of a transitional government, and the start of a democratization process," Cuadras said in an interview.

"This is an ethical revolution," said the representative, who is one of the heads of the University Student and Civil Society Coalition.

- Support lost -

He and others in the student movement say Ortega has lost the support of his Sandinista base in bastions such as Managua, Masaya and Leon.

Cuadras himself was raised in a pro-Sandinista family. His grandfather was gunned down by Somoza forces before the revolution swept them from power in 1979, and his father was a former Sandinista rebel.

Ortega's government, he said, has become "intransigent and dictatorial." It also was showing no signs of stopping the police repression against protesters, he said.

The students, though, were intent on seeing through the dialogue to belie Ortega's accusations that they were not willing to talk. "We want to show that we truly do want peace," Cuadras said.

Their demands include "the halt of the repression and justice" for those killed, he said. "We are demanding that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN human rights rapporteurs be allowed to come in," he said.

They also want a democratization of Nicaragua that would entail "a profound reform of the constitution, and independence for all branches of government," which are currently seen as under Ortega's command.

To get there, "the essential point" is the peaceful ouster of Ortega and Murillo, possibly followed by early presidential elections, Cuadras said.

"There are no weapons in the hands of the people, and we don't want this to turn into a civil war," he said.

"Ortega can ensure that he and his family are able to flee the country with all the fortune they've pillaged."

- They are 'finished' -

For now though, there was no sign in the talks of the president and vice president taking that route.

"Ortega wants to appear strong, and his wife does too," the student leader said.

But "they were finished the moment they started murdering the people. The people despise them," he said.

"The bases of Sandinista support are destroyed. Ortega attacked and killed in Leon, in Masaya, in Esteli, in Managua. He has killed in strategic places were his political base was located," Cuadras said.

On top of that, the private sector which had long found an accommodation with the veteran head of state "are splintered," with some hoping Ortega can hang on, while others were supporting the demonstrators in their call for the president to go.