By Ismael Lopez
MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaraguan police arrested 26 people on Sunday ahead of a planned march against the government of President Daniel Ortega, local human rights groups said.
Among those arrested ahead of the "United for Liberty" march were civil society activists and political leaders, according to a list published by Nicaragua human rights non-profit the Comision Permanente de Derechos Humanos.
The march was cancelled after the arrests, its leaders said.
Protests first erupted in April when Ortega's leftist government moved to reduce welfare benefits, but have escalated into broader opposition against Ortega, who has been in office since 2007.
More than 300 people have been killed in the protests, according to local human rights groups. Ortega's government disputes those figures and says 198 people have died.
"Protesting is a right, repression is a crime, liberty for political prisoners," demonstrator Tamara Davila shouted on Sunday, moments before she was loaded into a police vehicle.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said on Twitter that it was deeply worried by the arrests, and called on the government to guarantee the security of the protesters.
On Saturday, Nicaraguan police said in a statement that the planned protest was illegal and that they would do everything necessary to stop it. Shortly after, President Ortega also criticized the protesters in a speech to supporters on Saturday.
"They keep calling for marches not for peace, but for blood, that's what they want, they want blood," he said.
From early on Sunday, police special forces and government supporters began to patrol the streets of the capital, Managua, according to a Reuters witness.
(Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Christine Murray, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)