Managua: Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega prepared Thursday to celebrate the anniversary of the leftwing revolution that first brought him to power 39 years ago -- while cracking down on popular unrest demanding his ouster.
The 72-year-old leader, and his wife -- also his vice president -- Rosario Murillo, were expected to rally thousands of supporters in the capital Managua in a show of authority after three months of protests met with deadly force by police and paramilitaries loyal to Ortega.
At least 280 people have been killed, according to rights groups.
Since last week, the violence has intensified with lethal offensives against student protesters in Managua and against armed youth in Masaya, a city south of the capital that is the main bastion of anti-Ortega sentiment.
The bloodshed has caused Ortega to lose vital support from the private business sector, and scuppered talks with opposition figures mediated by the Catholic Church.
International condemnation has stepped up, with the US and the Organisation of American States calling for an end to the crackdown and backing activist demands for early elections in the poor Central American country.
The United Nations' human rights office this week said a mission sent to Nicaragua found a wide range of rights violations by Ortega's regime, including killings, torture and arbitrary detentions.
The Nicaraguan government, though, dismisses the claims.
It highlights only the deaths of some police officers and supporters of Ortega's Sandinista party. And Murillo said the armed operation in Masaya foiled a "terrorist and coup-driven" plot against the government.
The assault Tuesday on Masaya's flashpoint district of Monimbo lasted six hours, according to paramilitaries and residents interviewed by AFP.
On Wednesday, trucks of jubilant pro-Ortega militia men drove through the city, wearing masks and carrying assault rifles. Other paramilitaries hastily cleared away the battle debris and opposition roadblocks to give the impression that normalcy had returned to Masaya.
Although the paramilitaries denied any deaths had occurred, some locals spoke of many people killed. A rights group said that at least a woman and a policeman died.
The pro-government forces "won the battle (but) the (local) men say they are not defeated, that they will continue," said Livia Castillo, a 38-year-old resident.
Dozens of young people were said to have been taken away. AFP saw two police vehicles drive away with at least half a dozen prisoners in the back.
Some other locals said they welcomed the clearing away of opposition roadblocks, adding they just wanted to see the return of tourists that provided their livelihood.
Vice President Murillo said the government response to the opposition protests had been distorted by the media.
"We proclaim our victory, our advance against these dark, diabolical forces that for three months have blocked and hijacked peace," she told state media.
On Thursday she and Ortega were to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista-led revolution that saw Ortega rule for 11 years before losing the presidency in an election.
He returned to power in 2007 and proceeded to sweep aside anybody who could challenge him, and tightening his grip over the legislature and the courts.
In April, an attempt to cut benefits in a reform of the cash-strapped social security system triggered protests.
Although the move was quickly rescinded, the unrest only spread as long-simmering resentment at Ortega and Murillo spilled over into the streets and were met by brutal police action.
Melvin Sotelo, a Nicaraguan sociologist, said the uprising happened because Ortega had closed off all other avenues of dissent.
"This is a war waged by a state meant to protect the lives of its people against a defenseless population," he said.
The "mistakes" by Ortega were "burying him" by forcing diverse sectors of the country to unite in opposition, and prompting foreign investors to flee, Sotelo said.
"Nobody can keep a country submissive through force. It's a question of time," he said.