A man runs from the smoke of burning tires, in the city of Sebaco, Nicaragua

Managua (AFP) - Nicaragua’s top civic alliance called Tuesday for a nationwide 24-hour strike to protest “extreme conditions” under President Daniel Ortega, who has yet to decide on reviving talks over the crisis that has left at least 148 dead.

The day-long strike was set to begin Thursday at noon (1800 GMT) “in solidarity with the victims” of the two months of unrest, which has seen brutal clashes between anti-government activists and security forces loyal to Ortega.

“This is a national and peaceful civil strike that covers the entire country and all economic activities, except those related to the preservation of life and the coverage of basic services for the population,” announced the National Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a key player in the now stalled crisis talks.

The coalition also demanded an “immediate” decision from Ortega on the prospect of reviving negotiations mediated by Nicaragua’s influential Catholic bishops.

The country has not heard from its leftist leader since last week, when he met with top clergy members, who presented him with a plan to expedite the poll and institute electoral and constitutional reforms – key activist demands.

“Dialogue is the way to review the political system of Nicaragua from its root to achieve an authentic democracy and justice,” the civic alliance said.

The announcement comes after the country underwent a sharp escalation in violence in recent days, as police and pro-government paramilitaries attacked activists wielding slingshots and homemade mortars in an attempt to trample the uprising against Ortega.

The din of rifle blasts and mortar explosions echoed overnight and into the morning throughout the streets of Managua, even after government security forces forcefully cleared the barricades.

- Economic upheaval -

Anti-government demonstrators prepare to attack the police station during clashes with riot police at a barricade in the town of Masaya

Activists have erected the blockades on more than two thirds of the country’s roads in a bid to fend off anti-riot forces and pressure Ortega into dialogue.

But the makeshift roadblocks also have wreaked economic havoc: even in the unlikely scenario that the government “accepts an early negotiated exit” by the end of July, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) estimates the country would post losses of $404 million and bleed 20,000 jobs.

Assuming Ortega continues determined to stay, FUNIDES anticipates Nicaragua would lose $916 million in added value and 150,000 jobs by December.

The protests that began April 18 over controversial pension reforms have exploded into a mass effort to pressure the president’s exit.

At least 148 people have died in clashes with security forces and armed gangs loyal to Ortega, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), which also said well over 1,000 had been injured.

Nicaraguan politician Edmundo Jarquin, who in the past had formed political coalitions with Ortega, called it “foreseeable” that the leader would refuse certain “concessions in terms of justice and democratization” from the bishops.

Then “it will only be possible for Ortega to resign,” he wrote in an analysis of the crisis, “and all the forces within Nicaragua – Sandinistas and non-Sandinistas, institutional and non-institutional – must converge, and seek to end the massacre.”

- ‘Staggered civil war’ -

But some Nicaraguans appear ready to take up arms.

“For me, what is happening is a staggered civil war,” said a student leader known as “El Gato” who is among the hundreds who have occupied Managua university grounds in protest for more than a month.

“Most of us don’t want to see it like that, but personally I think there is going to have to be a moment in this story when we’re going to have to arm ourselves to be on the same level as them,” he said.

“We cannot continue to lose brothers’ lives.”

The situation is particularly acute in Ortega’s former stronghold Masaya, a city of some 100,000 people just southeast of Managua.

The department of the same name birthed the country’s famed rebel Augusto Sandino, who launched a popular uprising against US military occupation in the 1920s and 30s.

Friends and relatives of women who lost their sons in the recent protests hold a banner that reads "We demand justice, we want peace, we want them to leave... to leave" during a protest demanding justice in Managua

He in turn inspired Ortega’s guerrilla army – the Sandinistas, today the name of Ortega’s party – which overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s.

But activists across the country are now turning on Ortega in a similar fashion, in a mass movement that kicked off with strong university student leadership.

El Gato says before the protests, Nicaragua was teetering at a breaking point.

“For many years, I have been observing and keeping silent for fear of reprisals,” the 25-year-old said.

“I believe that this fight is just – we are fortified in here to pressure the government and speak out against what it’s been doing against Nicaraguans.”

Asked how long he would stay, the student’s eyes narrowed beneath the bandana masking the rest of his face: “As long as it takes.”