MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Public employees led by the Sandinista opposition defied President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's appeal to end a five-day-old strike Tuesday and fended off riot police who moved to break their picket lines.
The government, which Monday had declared the walkout illegal, made no move to carry out its threat to fire the strikers or replace them. Instead, officials said they are seeking new negotiations.
After the morning skirmishes at several government offices, the Sandinista-dominated police force withdrew, and the labor protest expanded, shutting down the country's international airport and the national telephone system, halting most of Managua's 260 buses and closing many of its public schools. Union leaders said 50,000 workers are now on strike to demand job security and a tripling of wages.
But even as Sandinista unions appeared to be winning round one of their first showdown with the three-week-old government, their forceful tactics provoked angry reactions by people looking for jobs or deprived of public services.
In one incident, striking mechanics in a pickup truck halted a crowded bus and, waving lead pipes, forced the driver and the passengers off.
"Vagrants! Thieves!" enraged commuters shouted as the strike enforcers hijacked the vehicle, one of 39 "scab buses" they said they were hunting on the streets.
The conflict reached into the studios of Radio Catolica, a church-owned station that was airing criticism of the strike. About 20 stick-wielding Sandinistas wearing red and black kerchiefs briefly seized the station and broadcast a message supporting the strikers.
Rival groups of workers nearly came to blows when Labor Minister Francisco Rosales drove through a gate into his ministry compound, pushing gently past pickets who leaned on the hood in an attempt to stop him.
While some police officers escorted Rosales safely into his office, others moved quickly to lock the gate, separating the strikers from about 50 unemployed poor people seeking to take over their jobs.
"Get away, scabs!" the strikers demanded.
"But we want work!" the people outside shouted.
"They ought to take a big broom and sweep all you shameless bums away," said Cristobal Bello, an unemployed construction worker.
Police officials, using persuasion, cleared pickets from some ministries, allowing senior officials to enter and small numbers of employees to return to work. At others, the strikers held firm.
The most serious clash came when a police officer threw a tear-gas grenade into a crowd of about 100 strikers who were trying to keep Foreign Minister Enrique Dreyfus out of his ministry's headquarters. The strikers scattered but quickly regrouped. Beaten and visibly shaken, Dreyfus fled into an adjacent steakhouse.
Some of his police protectors were also roughed up.
"Guardia Somocista!" the strikers shouted, comparing the police to the National Guard of the late dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979.
It was the first time that Chamorro's government, which deposed the Sandinistas in the February election and took office April 25, had to test the loyalty of the police in a political conflict. The top police officials are Sandinistas, and the entire force is Sandinista-trained--facts noted by a pro-Sandinista radio station that urged them repeatedly to join the strike.
In general, the police avoided conflict, causing confusion among government officials who expected them to act more forcefully. Police officers said they were acting on instructions from Chamorro's minister of government, Carlos Hurtado, to minimize violence.
At the Central Bank, police backed away from a shoving match that prevented the bank's president, Francisco Mayorga, from entering. And they gave up trying to push open the huge iron gates of the National Palace after hundreds of striking Finance Ministry employees shouting "People power!" formed a human wall on the inside.
At 9:30 a.m., after more than an hour of such skirmishes at government buildings, the police withdrew, saying they had orders from Hurtado.
"Viva la policia Sandinista!" some strikers shouted.
Asked to explain the decision, police Cmdr. Javier Lopez pointed to the crowd behind the palace gate and said: "I think it's obvious. (Hurtado) knew we were getting worn out. He wants to look for a negotiated solution."
"In Nicaragua, there is no precedent for using arms to repress a movement of this kind, and in this case the police would not have been willing," Lopez added.
A government official said that Chamorro's aides, after fruitless talks with labor leaders had broken off Sunday night, were trying to start political negotiations with the eight-man Sandinista National Directorate led by former President Daniel Ortega. The aides said the directorate was viewed as more moderate than the strike leaders, whom he accused of trying to destabilize the new administration.
Chamorro signaled willingness to negotiate when she urged the strikers in a Monday night radio broadcast to return to work. But she did not make the end of the strike a condition to new talks.
But labor leader Lucio Jimenez, whose Sandinista Worker's Central is the country's largest labor group, said there is no sign of talks. He said the strike will continue and might expand further.
"The only indication the government has given is to behave like a dictatorship that is insensitive to the grave problems faced by the workers," he said, emphasizing the tear-gassing incident.
Leaders of the 40,000-member government workers union are demanding 200% wage increases to compensate for price increases during Chamorro's first week in office. They also want her to restore a recently suspended civil service law guaranteeing their jobs and their right to strike. The government has offered a 60% wage increase.