Nicaragua pledges to free anti-government protesters and begin reforms

MANAGUA, March 9 - Nicaragua's government said on Saturday it would release prisoners rounded up in months of protests and implement electoral reforms, as talks continue with the opposition to end the country's worst political crisis in three decades.

At least 320 people have been killed, many more wounded, and several hundred detained in a crackdown on protests that were triggered last April by a social security reform but quickly swelled into a national call to oust President Daniel Ortega.

Government talks resumed with the opposition last month after a first attempt at agreement fell apart, but have foundered so far on opposition demands that imprisoned protesters be freed and electoral reforms implemented. The Catholic Church, who had been acting as mediator, pulled out of the discussions on Friday.

The opposition Civic Alliance had said it would consult with its popular bases over the weekend on whether it should continue with the talks. It did not give any immediate reaction to Saturday's government announcement.

In a statement, the government announced a series of agenda points it said it would take to the opposition representatives.

It said it was committed to the "release of prisoners in the context of criminal acts that occurred as of April 2018 against the state of Nicaragua, who have not yet been tried."

The government freed 100 prisoners last month, just before the start of the new talks.

Rights groups responded by calling for the release of an additional 566 people they said were still incarcerated for their alleged role in the protests, including several prominent journalists and rights activists.

The impoverished Central American country is suffering its bloodiest crisis since an 11-year civil war ended in 1990, badly damaging the economy and sending at least 30,000 people into exile.

Critics of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who first ruled between 1979 and 1990, say his government has steadily eroded legitimate opposition, allowing him to consolidate power in his latest stint as president since 2007.

Saturday's statement said that the government would implement electoral reforms ahead of a 2021 presidential vote, as recommended by the Organization of American States (OAS). It also called for the "international community to suspend all sanctions against the Nicaraguan people."

The U.S. government has imposed sanctions against Nicaraguan officials whom it accuses of abuses and undermining democracy, expanding them in November to include Ortega's wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Ortega has in the past denied holding political prisoners. His government has said the protests were an attempted coup, that the judiciary is independent and that those behind bars committed crimes.

The government also released a joint statement with the OAS on Saturday, which said the OAS was considering sending a representative to the talks.