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UN asks neighboring countries to accept fleeing Nicaraguans

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
Nicaraguan refugees fleeing their country due to unrest line up to enter a Christian church to sleep in it in San Jose, Costa Rica, on July 28, 2018. Costa Rica has received thousands of applications for asylum, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Thousands of people are fleeing political violence and rights violations in Nicaragua following a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on other nations Tuesday to help Costa Rica, which has been flooded with thousands of requests for asylum.

Giulia Mortrones said she had headed by bus to the Costa Rican border because university students like her had become a target for Nicaraguan police.

"We were afraid that something would happen to us," Ms. Mortrones said while waiting at Penas Blancas, on the border with Costa Rica. "We are fleeing from there [Nicaragua], from the national police, because they are following all students."

The flight of Nicaraguans has intensified in the past month since Ortega's police and paramilitary forces worked to clear the last of the barricades that had been knotting the country's traffic since April.

In July, paramilitary forces attacked students who had been holed up at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, one of the opposition's last bastions in Managua. Then a couple of days later, police and armed, masked civilians routed the opposition stronghold of Monimbo in Masaya, about an hour south of the capital.

People who observed the barricades in their neighborhoods said government informants had been compiling lists of who was manning them or supporting them. People on those lists are now being systemically hunted and arrested, according to Nicaraguan human rights groups.

In Masaya last week, several dozen people, mostly women, waited outside the town's police station for word of their loved ones.

One woman, who declined to give her name because she hoped her son would soon be released, said he had been arrested the week before while trying to flee into Costa Rica. The police had sent him back to Masaya and he was being investigated for his alleged participation in the barricades.

Student leader Victor Cuadras, however, made it to Costa Rica this month.

"There's an arrest warrant for me because they're accusing me of terrorism," Mr. Cuadras said by phone. He was working to organize support to pressure Ortega. He had already met with former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and members of the country's legislature.

"Those who manage to flee cross to Costa Rica or Honduras," Cuadras said. "There are many who have already been taken prisoner."

Journalists saw three young Nicaraguan men ordered off a bus headed into Costa Rica Tuesday at the Pena Blancas crossing, apparently for lack of appropriate documents.

The UN office said Costa Rica is receiving about 200 asylum applications per day.

Costa Rica says nearly 8,000 Nicaraguans have filed asylum claims since anti-government protests began in April and the UN agency said "some 15,000 more have been given appointments for later registration as the national processing capacities have been overwhelmed."

Increased claims have also been detected in Panama, Mexico, and the US.

A 39-year-old Nicaraguan man who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals against his family is now in Mexico, asking the country's refugee assistance commission for political asylum.

Interviewed at a migrant shelter in Mexico City where he has been staying since he arrived in June, the man said he feared pro-government paramilitaries or gangs would target him if he returned to Nicaragua.

The man said that he and others from his neighborhood in Managua were building a barricade in May when paramilitaries suddenly began firing at them. Then another group of youths from the neighborhood fired back and a gunfight broke out.

The man said he ran to safety, but a friend named Elias was shot in the back while trying to flee on a motorcycle. He is afraid he will be blamed for the death.

"They were going to blame us for the bullet that killed Elias," he said.

The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association says almost 450 people have been killed since the protests began. President Daniel Ortega said in an interview with CNN aired Monday that the death toll was 195.

Ortega gave a new take on one of the most bitterly debated aspects of the government crackdown, the throngs of masked men in civilian clothes who fired weapons at protest barricades. Ortega had previously denied they were government paramilitaries, but on Monday described them as "volunteer policemen." He has described the protests as a US-backed coup attempt.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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