Honduras warns ousted president to stay away

An interim government in Honduras warned ousted President Manuel Zelaya to stay away but indicated it could be more conciliatory in talks on Friday with the Organisation of American States (OAS) over the country’s crisis.

Roberto Micheletti, head of a caretaker leadership set up after an army coup, said he welcomed the chance to talk with OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, who was expected to arrive in Honduras early on Friday with an ultimatum to reinstate Zelaya or be suspended from the regional body.

Micheletti said he could be open to holding an early presidential election and even a plebiscite on bringing Zelaya back to serve the past few months of his term, if that would calm the global storm over his ouster.

Insulza was cautious, however, telling reporters late on Thursday he doubted he could defuse the crisis in one visit.

“I cannot say I am confident. I will do everything I can but I think it is very hard to turn things around in a couple of days,” he told reporters in Guyana.

The OAS, which groups most countries in the Americas including the United States, is a mostly symbolic organisation that promotes peace and justice but has limited powers.

The new Honduran administration has so far rebuffed any attempt to bring back Zelaya, who was ousted in a dawn coup in a dispute over presidential term limits that has become Central America’s biggest political crisis since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.

The hitherto bloodless overthrow in the impoverished coffee and textile exporting country of seven million people has created a test for regional diplomacy and for US commitment to shoring up democracy in Latin America.

“For the peace and calm of the country I would prefer he [Zelaya] does not come in,” Micheletti told Honduran radio on Thursday. “I do not want even one drop of blood spilled in this country,” he said, adding that Venezuela’s firebrand socialist President Hugo Chávez was steering Zelaya’s moves.

Earlier, he told reporters he would be “in total agreement” with bringing forward a November 29 presidential election.

“I have no objection if it would be a way of resolving these problems,” he said.
A referendum on reinstating Zelaya to serve the rest of his term was also possible, he said, although it would be “difficult” to hold one immediately.

Country split
The crisis has split Hondurans, with supporters of the coup holding rallies and pro-Zelaya demonstrators mounting rowdy protests, burning tires and building barricades, in recent days. Several dozen pro-Zelaya activists have been arrested.

A mustachioed logging magnate, Zelaya grew close to Chávez and pulled Honduras to the left since taking power in 2006, winning him support among the country’s poor but making him unpopular with the wealthy conservative elite.

Polls show Zelaya’s popularity had dropped to 30% in recent months. The army, courts and Congress all opposed his quest to lift presidential term limits.

He was forced out, and flown to Costa Rica, on Sunday after he vowed to press ahead with a public vote, ruled illegal by a judge, to gauge support for changing the Constitution to let presidents seek re-election beyond a single four-year term.

World bodies and governments from Washington and Brussels to Zelaya’s left-wing allies have condemned his ouster and demanded he be restored to power. His term ends in early 2010.

“We hope the coup leaders recognise the damage they are doing to the country and the world and allow the return of President Zelaya,” Insulza told Reuters on Thursday.

Zelaya has vowed to go back and serve the rest of his term, but the new government says he will be arrested if he goes to Honduras and there is “no chance” of him returning to office.

According to Zelaya, Insulza will deliver a firm ultimatum to reinstall him and will not negotiate with Micheletti.

No foreign governments have imposed economic sanctions, and Micheletti’s industry and commerce minister Benjamin Bogran told Reuters on Thursday that an embargo would mainly hurt the country’s many poor people.—Reuters

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