Ortega wants armed conflict in Nicaragua: ex-comrade

Managua (AFP) - The anti-government protests sweeping Nicaragua began in what might seem a relatively harmless way: with elderly demonstrators marching against a since-abandoned pension reform that slashed their benefits.

So why have they been met with a brutal crackdown that has left more than 100 people dead and fueled increasingly vehement calls for President Daniel Ortega to quit?

Retired Major Roberto Samcam fought along with Ortega in the Sandinista guerrilla army that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, then served in his military during a decade-long war with the US-funded Contra rebels.

After leaving the army, he co-founded the Patriotic Group of Retired Soldiers, and is today an outspoken Ortega critic.

In an interview with AFP, Samcam analyzed the president's response to the crisis -- the result, he said, of a lifetime at war.

Q: The president denies government security forces have killed civilians. But rights groups accuse pro-government paramilitaries of opening fire on protesters. Who are they?

"Daniel Ortega is lying, because these paramilitary and para-police forces have been organized and armed by the government.

"We have identified (the paramilitaries) as plainclothes police, former soldiers, members of the now-extinct Small Special Forces Units, which were the army's elite troops in the 80s. Also individuals who were in the Pablo Ubeda troops, which were interior ministry troops with special training.

"Then there are the para-police forces, which are made up of anti-social delinquents, people from the poorest echelons of the 'barrios'... There are also prisoners they have released, who received a brief training in the national stadium... And then they arm them."

Q: Some protesters appear to have been killed with Dragunov sniper rifles, which some say are only available to the police and army. Where are these guns coming from?

"In its most recent statement, the army said it had strict control over its arsenal, which I don't doubt. I don't think the army is involved in the sniper phenomenon.

"Those rifles could have easily come from Venezuela. In 2013, they created a new sniper unit in their second infantry division.

"They have 3,500 rifles purchased from Russia. And neither (late Venezuelan president Hugo) Chavez nor (his successor, Nicolas) Maduro would be bothered in the least about sending five, six, 10, 12 sniper rifles as a favor to Daniel Ortega.

Q: Are these highly trained sharpshooters?

"You need special training if you're using it to hit a distant target at a specific moment. But if you're going to shoot someone at a protest of 100,000 people, you don't need much expertise.

"The scope helps you sight and aim, and you're firing from an advantageous position, with a weapon that has a range of up to 800 meters.

"Any retired soldiers who are Ortega fanatics and were in the war in the 80s would know how to use it.

"Ortega's other great irresponsibility is having armed all these anti-social types (in the para-police)... He's built a Frankenstein that has basically taken on a life of its own."

Q: Do you think the other side could arm itself too?

"That will be their biggest temptation.

"But as long as these are civic protests, and the people aren't armed, the army won't intervene, and Daniel Ortega won't have the pretext he wants of facing an armed rebellion.

"Let's be clear: Ortega has waged war his entire life. And now he doesn't know what to do, because he's facing protesters who haven't fired a single shot ... He's out of his element. That's why he's pushing. He's going to repress (the protests), to make every day bloodier than the last."

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