Exclusive-Nicaragua embracing China to insulate against international sanctions – U.S. official

By Matt Spetalnick and Drazen Jorgic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Nicaragua’s sudden diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China was part of efforts by President Daniel Ortega’s government to shield itself from recent international sanctions against Managua, a senior U.S. administration official said on Friday.

The United States is also uncertain whether Honduras could follow suit and open diplomatic ties with Beijing, the U.S. official told Reuters, but added that Washington was prepared to “surge” economic aid to the incoming government of Xiomara Castro.

China and Nicaragua re-established diplomatic ties on Friday after the Central American country broke relations with Chinese-claimed Taiwan, boosting Beijing in a part of the world long considered the United States’ backyard and angering Washington.

Beijing has increased military and political pressure on Taiwan to accept its sovereignty claims, drawing anger from the democratically ruled island, which has repeatedly said it would not be bullied and has the right to international participation.

Nicaragua’s abrupt break with Taiwan followed months of worsening ties between Ortega and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

Washington has imposed new targeted sanctions on Nicaraguan officials following the country’s November elections. Biden called the elections a “pantomime” that was neither free nor fair as Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War adversary of the United States, won a fourth consecutive term.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cast Nicaragua’s embrace of China as part of Ortega’s effort to consolidate his “authoritarian regime” and also described it as a response to sanctions by Washington and several other countries.

The official said Washington viewed Nicaragua’s diplomatic switch as partly in response to such pressure from the international community.

“They have felt that pressure and perhaps need the PRC support, or think they need the PRC support, for their way forward as they hunker down in a more authoritarian posture,” the official said.

Washington has continued to make the case to Honduras and other countries in the Americas that recognize Taiwan to maintain those ties, and has warned them about China’s intentions and “non-transparent” investment strategy in the region, the official said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Franklin Paul and Daniel Wallis)

Nicaragua’s Ortega secures another term, U.S. threatens action

By Daina Beth Solomon

SAN JOSE (Reuters) -Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega easily locked in a fourth consecutive term after suppressing political rivals, results showed on Monday, leading Washington to warn it would press for a “return to democracy” and free and fair elections.

Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council said that with roughly half the ballots counted, a preliminary tally gave Ortega’s Sandinista alliance about 75% of votes.

But in the months leading up to Sunday’s election Western and many Latin American nations had expressed deep concern about the fairness of the vote as Ortega detained opponents and business leaders, canceled rival parties, and criminalized dissent.

Election observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States were not allowed to scrutinize the vote and journalists have been barred from entering the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States will work with other democratic governments and was ready to use a range of tools, including possible sanctions, visa restrictions and coordinated actions against those it said were complicit in supporting the Nicaragua government’s “undemocratic acts.”

Democrats in the U.S. Congress pushed for U.S. President Joe Biden to back the so-called Renacer Act that aims to intensify pressure on Ortega and pursue greater regional cooperation to boost democratic institutions.

A statement by all 27 EU members accused Ortega of “systematic incarceration, harassment and intimidation” of opponents, journalists and activists.

The EU said the elections “complete the conversion of Nicaragua into an autocratic regime.” Chile, Costa Rica, Spain and Britain called for detained opposition leaders to be freed.

“Elections were neither, free, nor fair, nor competitive,” said Jose Manuel Albares, Spain’s foreign minister.

On Sunday, Ortega – the longest-serving leader in the Americas – hailed the election as a victory delivered by the “immense majority of Nicaraguans.”

Cuba, Venezuela and Russia all offered him their backing.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said U.S. calls for countries not to recognize the outcome were “unacceptable.”


Ortega’s victory consolidates the increasingly repressive political model he has built in recent years along with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

A former Marxist rebel who helped topple the right-wing Somoza family dictatorship in the late 1970s, Ortega says he is defending Nicaragua against unscrupulous adversaries bent on ousting him with the aid of foreign powers. His government has passed a series of laws that make it easy to prosecute opponents for crimes such as “betraying the homeland.”

Just five little-known candidates of mostly small parties allied to Ortega’s Sandinistas were permitted to run against him.

“Most people I know decided not to vote, they say it’s madness,” said Naomi, an opponent of the government from the eastern port of Bluefields, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.

“What they’re doing here is a joke.”

Nicaragua’s electoral authority said turnout was 65%.

In the 1980s, Ortega served a single term as president before being voted out. He returned to the top job in 2007.

After initially delivering solid economic growth and attracting private investment, Ortega’s government changed course in response to 2018 anti-government protests. More than 300 people were killed during the ensuing crackdown.

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have since fled the country. Many of them gathered in neighboring Costa Rica on Sunday in a show of defiance against Ortega.

Prolonged discontent is expected to fuel more emigration to Costa Rica and the United States, where record numbers of Nicaraguans have been apprehended at the border this year.

Rights activist Haydee Castillo, who was arrested in 2018 and now lives in the United States, called the election “a farce.”

“He has not conceded anything despite the resolutions and declarations that the international community has made,” Castillo said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in San Jose; Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo in San Jose, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Natalia Ramos in Santiago, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow, Guy Faulconbridge in London, Inti Landauro in Madrid, Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Jake Kincaid in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham, Catherine Evans and Rosalba O’Brien)

Lost hope: Ortega’s crackdown in Nicaragua stirs fast-growing exodus

By Daina Beth Solomon and Alvaro Murillo

MEXICO CITY/SAN JOSE (Reuters) – Nicaraguan activist Jesus Adolfo Tefel has already been detained once, in 2019, when he tried to bring water to mothers on a hunger strike against President Daniel Ortega. The government accused him of planning terrorist acts and, he said, locked him up for 46 days.

That time, he stayed in Nicaragua after the government released him without pressing charges. But when the Ortega government began arresting presidential contenders, journalists and activists in June ahead of November elections, Tefel fled across the border to Costa Rica with his family.

“I don’t have the slightest doubt I would have been arrested” again if I stayed, said Tefel, 35, citing his work with opposition leaders aiming to oust the longest-standing president in the Americas, who is seeking a fourth straight term in the elections.

Tefel’s family joined tens of thousands of people who have slipped into exile this year amid the crackdown. The Nicaraguan government did not immediately respond to questions about Tefel, whose earlier arrest was documented by human rights groups and international media including Reuters.

Data from the United States, Costa Rica and Mexico reveal an exodus shaping up to be among the biggest from Nicaragua since a 1980s civil war. It threatens to overwhelm Costa Rica’s asylum system and has swollen already record Central American migration numbers to the United States.

The jump in Nicaraguans going into exile is on track to be higher than in either 2018 or 2019, when repression of opposition protests against Ortega left at least 300 people dead.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection in July logged more than 13,000 Nicaraguans either illegally crossing or seeking asylum at the nation’s borders, almost double the month before. That pushed Nicaragua to overtake El Salvador, traditionally one of the main drivers of Latino migration to the United States.

Some 33,000 Nicaraguans have been apprehended at U.S. borders so far this year, over twice as many as in all of 2019, the year with the most apprehensions of Nicaraguans in at least a decade.

This could be “the year with the most applications since records began,” said Costa Rican official Allan Rodriguez, who oversees the country’s asylum unit.

Ortega’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the rising migration or accusations of political persecution. Ortega has said his opponents seek to topple him and conspire against national interests.

Costa Rica is struggling to process 11,000 Nicaraguan refugee applications received in July and August, more than in the peak months of the last wave of repression.

Asylum officers have a backlog of 52,000 cases to review.


Ortega first took power after the 1979 overthrow of U.S.-backed right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza by Sandinista rebels, and returned to office in 2007.

Working with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, he has tightened his grip in the second-poorest country in the Americas.

He has abolished presidential term limits, expanded his family’s business empire and piled pressure on independent media, while at the same time using budget and tax laws to take control of at least a dozen media and news outlets .

Over the past three months, Ortega has arrested 35 opposition leaders, suspended a rival party and withheld newsprint, among other tactics that U.N. officials, the United States and Europe have called an abuse of power to stifle free speech and free elections.

“What we are seeing in Nicaragua is an escalating climate of repression, fear, and hopelessness,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not respond to a request for comment.

Under President Joe Biden, the United States has identified bad governance and weak rule of law as a root cause of migration from Central America. It is seeking to cajole the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to tackle these issues to stem flows.

Nicaragua, traditionally a lesser source of immigration to the United States, has been not included in that effort.

However, the State Department said the administration is using “diplomatic and economic tools” to pressure a government it calls undemocratic and authoritarian. Washington has sanctioned several people close to Ortega, including Vice President Murillo.

In Mexico, Nicaraguans are spending weeks or months in southern border towns as they await visas to stay legally or pass through safely to the U.S. border.

Lester Altamirano, 40, lived in the Mexican city of Tapachula for eight months before making it to California with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. He crossed into the United States in late May, a DHS document seen by Reuters showed, and he plans to apply for asylum.

The family first requested asylum in the United States in 2020 but was deported. Back in Nicaragua, Altamirano and his wife were jailed for 11 days for opposing the government, Altamirano said.

Altamirano’s anti-government Facebook posts then drew the attention of officials in his small town in northern Nicaragua.

“It was going to be worse if we stayed. We had to risk it,” he said, echoing others Reuters spoke to for this story, including journalist Carlos Padilla, 26, who said he had been scared to protest on the street at home for fear of arrest.

Tefel, who once ran a tourism company in Nicaragua, said he does not know when he could return home without risking jail.

“I lived it in my own skin,” he said. “I know what it means to be locked up, and unjustly.”

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Alvaro Murillo in San Jose; Additional reporting by Ismael Lopez and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alistair Bell)

Death toll from Iota slowly rises in Central America amid ongoing rescue efforts

By Gustavo Palencia and Ismael Lopez

TEGUCIGALPA/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The death toll from storm Iota is slowly rising in Central America as authorities on Thursday said they’d recovered more bodies buried in landslides triggered by catastrophic flooding that swept through the already waterlogged region earlier this week.

Nearly 40 people were killed across Central America and Colombia, and the toll is expected to rise as rescue workers reach isolated communities. Most of the deaths have occurred in Nicaragua and Honduras.

The strongest storm on record to hit Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday as a Category 4 hurricane. It inundated low-lying areas still reeling from the impact two weeks ago of Eta, another major hurricane that killed dozens of people in the region.

On Thursday morning, Honduran authorities raised the death toll to 14 after confirming that eight members of two families, including four children, were killed when a landslide buried their homes in a village in a mountainous region populated by indigenous Lencas near the border with El Salvador.

In Nicaragua, where a total of 18 people have been confirmed dead, rescue efforts continue after a landslide in the north of the country killed eight people, with more missing.

While Iota largely dissipated over El Salvador on Wednesday, authorities struggled to cope with the fallout from days of heavy rain.

Numerous villages from northern Colombia to southern Mexico saw record rainfall swell rivers and trigger mudslides. Cities like the Honduran industrial hub of San Pedro Sula were also hit hard, with the city’s airport completely flooded and jetways looking more like docks, video posted on social media showed.

Some 160,000 Nicaraguans and 70,000 Hondurans have been forced to flee to shelters.

Experts say the destruction caused by the unprecedented 2020 hurricane season in Central America could spur more migration out of the region, which is coping with insecurity and an economic crisis triggered by coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns imposed earlier this year.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Ismael Lopez in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Storm Iota breaks up over El Salvador but leaves major flood risk

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) – Storm Iota unleashed flash floods in areas already waterlogged with rain, forcing tens of thousands of people across Central America to flee their homes with a death toll feared to be over 20 by Wednesday morning.

The strongest storm on record ever to hit Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday, bringing winds of nearly 155 miles per hour (249 kph) and inundating villages still reeling from the impact two weeks ago of Eta, another major hurricane.

Iota had largely dissipated over El Salvador by Wednesday morning, but authorities across Nicaragua and Honduras were still battling to cope with the devastating flooding the weather front had left behind in the deeply impoverished region.

Six people in Nicaragua and three others across Central America and the Caribbean had been confirmed dead by Tuesday evening.

Nicaraguan media said a landslide had killed at least 15 other people in the north of the country. Many more were still missing and feared lost, according to the reports.

In Honduras, more than 71,000 people are in shelters, and dozens of rivers and streams burst their banks, flooding nearby streets and highways, authorities said.

Despite the dissolution of Iota, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm’s remnants could trigger life-threatening flash flooding, river flooding and mudslides across parts of Central America through Thursday.

Authorities in El Salvador have reported one death related to the storm so far, with hundreds more people in shelters.

The remnants of Iota were drifting west toward the Pacific by mid-morning on Wednesday, the Miami-based NHC said.

(Reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Ismael Lopez in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

U.S.-bound Central American migrants on the move in Mexico

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States, take a shower in the Mapastepec city center, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Delphine Schrank and Ana Isabel Martinez

MAPASTEPEC, Mexico/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Central American migrants clustered for the night on Wednesday in a southern Mexico town after advancing on their trek toward the United States, despite Mexico’s vows to hinder their progress under pressure from the Trump administration.

Thousands of men, women and children, mostly from Honduras, shuffled throughout the afternoon into the town of Mapastepec in Chiapas state, still more than 1,100 miles (1,770 km) from the U.S. border.

A migrant woman rests roadside with her child while traveling with a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States as they make their way to Mapastepec from Huixtla, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

A migrant woman rests roadside with her child while traveling with a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States as they make their way to Mapastepec from Huixtla, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

As nightfall came and rain began to pour, they camped out on sidewalks in the small town, wrapping knapsacks in plastic and huddling beneath awnings.

Their trek has drawn the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has used the migrant caravan to fire up support for his Republican party in Nov. 6 congressional elections.

It has also prompted Washington to put pressure on the Mexican government to halt the migrants’ progress.

The caravan, which began as a march of a few hundred people from the crime-wracked Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Oct. 13, swelled into the thousands as it was joined by migrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Mexican immigration authorities have told the migrants they will not be able to cross illegally into the United States.

Alex Mensing of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that organized a previous migrant caravan that angered Trump in April, said on Wednesday the current caravan is comprised of about 10,000 people.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras is accompanying the caravan, which Mensing forecast would fragment in due course.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States, are seen dancing in the Mapastepec city center, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States, are seen dancing in the Mapastepec city center, Mexico October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

“It’s very unlikely that 10,000 people will arrive together at a border city between Mexico and the United States,” he told a conference call with reporters.

“There will be people who stay in Mexico, there will be people who go to different borders because everyone has their own plan and different support where they have family members.”

Migrants began departing Huixtla in the wee hours of the morning, fanning out for about a mile and half on the road toward Mapastepec. They walked in flip flops and old sneakers. Many hitched rides from hundreds of cars, trucks and public transportation.

A Chiapas church group said they cooked for a full day, then drove over an hour from the mountains to reach the caravan, where they handed out coffee, sugary bread and tamales, cornmeal patties stuffed with meat and vegetables.

Every time they stopped to serve, migrants flung their small packs aboard their pickup, hoping to catch a ride.

“No, no,” church volunteer Liz Magail Rodriguez said, pointing to the containers of food. “With these tamales, you’ll have energy to walk all day.”

On Wednesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called U.S. Vice President Mike Pence “crazy” and “extremist” for accusing his government of financing the caravan. Pence said on Tuesday that the group was “financed by Venezuela,” without providing evidence.

Mexican authorities have tried to walk a fine line between responding to Trump’s demands to close its borders and respecting migrants’ rights.

Mexico’s interior ministry said in a statement on Wednesday evening that about 3,630 people are part of the migrant caravan in Mexico that was advancing from Huixtla, around 30 miles (50 km) north of the Guatemalan border, to Mapastepec.

Reuters could not independently verify how many people were in that group.

A separate group of least 1,000 migrants, mostly Hondurans, has been moving slowly through Guatemala toward Mexico. Some media have put the number above 2,000.

(Additional reporting by Jose Cortes in Mapastepec, Corina Pons and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Michael O’Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold)

Judge bars U.S. from ending protections for immigrants from four countries

Paint is seen on cars before members of the Teamsters Union participate in a tractor trailer caravan surrounding the LA Metro Detention Center in support of port truck drivers and others threatened by deportation if the courts or congress don't stop the termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge in California barred the Trump administration on Wednesday from implementing a plan to end temporary protections for more than 300,000 immigrants in the United States from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan.

U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen issued a preliminary injunction in a suit brought by a number of immigrants with temporary protected status, or TPS.

The TPS designation offers protection from deportation to immigrants already in the United States, including those who entered illegally, from countries affected by natural disasters, civil conflicts, and other problems.

The government has failed to establish any real harm if “the status quo (which has been in existence for as long as two decades) is maintained during the pendency of this litigation,” Chen wrote in the order.

“Indeed, if anything, Plaintiffs and amici have established without dispute that local and national economies will be hurt if hundreds of thousands of TPS beneficiaries are uprooted and removed,” he said.

There are more than 263,000 TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, 58,000 from Haiti, 5,000 from Nicaragua and 1,000 from Sudan, according to court documents.

The Trump administration has shown a deep skepticism toward the temporary protected status program and has moved to revoke the special status afforded to thousands of immigrants from a number of countries, including the four named in the suit.

Salvadoran immigrants covered by TPS will lose their protected status in September 2019, those from Haiti in July 2019, Nicaraguan immigrants in January 2019 and Sudanese immigrants in November 2019.

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Magnitude 7 offshore quake shakes Central America, no damage seen

People play at La Pazon beach after a tsunami warning was lifted following a 7.0 magnitude undersea earthquake off the Pacific Coast of Central America, in La Libertad, El Salvador,

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – A strong earthquake off the Pacific Coast of Central America shook the region on Thursday just as a hurricane barreled into the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but there were no immediate reports of any quake damage.

Emergency services in El Salvador said on Twitter it had received no reports of damage at a national level, but urged those living along the country’s Pacific coast to withdraw up to 1 kilometer (0.62 mile) away from the shore.

The 7.0 magnitude quake, initially reported as a magnitude 7.2, was very shallow at 10.3 kilometers (6.4 miles) below the seabed, which would have amplified its effect.

Its epicenter was located some 149 km (93 miles) south-southwest of Puerto Triunfo in El Salvador, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center warned that tsunami waves of up to 1 meter (3 feet) could hit the Pacific coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador after the quake, but later said that available data showed the threat had passed.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega declared a state of emergency due to the quake and Hurricane Otto, which landed on the country’s southeastern coast earlier on Thursday, his spokeswoman said.

“We were serving lunch to the lawmakers and the earthquake started and we felt that it was very strong,” said Jacqueline Najarro, a 38-year-old food seller at the Congress in San Salvador. “We were scared.”

Earlier on Thursday, the Category 2 Hurricane Otto hit land near the southeastern coast of Nicaragua, where thousands had already been evacuated away from vulnerable coastal areas and into shelters.

(Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, Gustavo Palencia in Honduras and Ivan Castro in Nicaragua; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Sandra Maler and Simon Gardner)

Storm Otto moves out to sea after slamming Nicaragua, Costa Rica

A boat is seen near the Bluefields Port after Hurricane Otto hit southern Nicaragua at Bluefields, Nicaragu

By Ivan Castro

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua (Reuters) – Tropical storm Otto moved out to sea on Friday after battering Nicaragua and Costa Rica with hurricane-force winds and torrential rains, killing at least three people and forcing thousands to evacuate.

Otto landed as a hurricane but weakened rapidly after hitting the southeastern coast of Nicaragua and became a tropical storm by early Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, as dangerous flooding thrashed both countries.

In Costa Rica, President Luis Guillermo Solis said on Twitter that at least 3 people had died and some 2,500 people had been evacuated. He said rescue efforts continued.

Otto, the seventh Atlantic hurricane of the season, landed north of the town of San Juan de Nicaragua as a Category 2 storm on the five-rating Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

By Friday morning the storm was heading out to the Pacific Ocean with top sustained winds of 60 mph (95 kph) and located about 115 miles (190 km) west southwest of Santa Elena, Costa Rica.

Soon after the storm had landed on Thursday, a 7.0 magnitude quake struck 93 miles (149 km) southwest of Puerto Triunfo, El Salvador, at a depth of 6.4 miles (10.3 km), the U.S. Geological Survey said.

There were no reports of major damage from the quake, but local emergency services ordered the coastal population to withdraw up to 0.6 mile (1 km) from the shore.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega declared a state of emergency because of the storm and the quake, said spokeswoman Rosario Murillo, who is also his wife.

Nicaraguan civil protection officials said the hurricane, which was moving west at 14 mph ( 22 kph), damaged homes and telephone lines but had not claimed any victims as of early Friday morning.


In Bluefields, a city in Nicaragua’s southeastern Mosquito Coast, rainfall began early in the morning. Hundreds had moved to storm shelters by Thursday evening.

“We left because we don’t want to die. We love our lives,” said 53-year-old Carmen Alvarado, who was hunkering down in a school in Bluefields. She was among the 206 people evacuated from the coastal community of El Bluff.

“The fear there is that we were surrounded by water,” said Senelia Aragon, 42, standing next to Alvarado, preparing a breakfast of flour tortillas with beans.

Bluefields, once an infamous pirate haunt, was smashed by Hurricane Joan in 1988, a devastating Category 4 storm that destroyed many of the town’s 19th century wooden houses.

On the Corn Islands, which face Bluefields and are popular with tourists, 1,400 people were evacuated to shelters, emergency services officials said. Another 1,000 people more moved from Punta Gorda, which lies south along the coast from Bluefields.

Government officials said people along the country’s southeast coast had refused to evacuate but declined to say how many.

The storm dumped about 6 inches to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of rain, with isolated amounts of 15 inches to 20 inches (38 to 50 cm).

(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter, Natalie Schachar and Dave Graham, Additional reporting by George Rodriguez in San Jose; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Jeffrey Benkoe)