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Honduras lifts curfew 2 weeks after military coup

HONDURAN authorities yesterday lifted a curfew imposed since the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya two weeks ago - a sign the interim government is trying to restore normality to life in the crisis-gripped country.

In a nationally broadcast announcement, the interim government said the curfew had reached its objective to "restore calm" and curb crime.

The de facto administration of Roberto Micheletti imposed the curfew after soldiers escorted Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint on June 28, plunging Honduras into political turmoil.

Hondurans were ordered to stay in their homes from 11 pm to 4:30 am nightly. The government briefly extended it from sunset to sunrise when Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras and the military blocked his plane from landing by parking vehicles on the runway July 5.

Daily demonstrations for and against the forcibly exiled leader have disrupted transit and prompted many businesses to close. Many governments have withdrawn their ambassadors to protest the coup.

The interim government said Hondurans nationwide can go out at night starting yesterday.

Guillermo Quintanilla, a taxi driver, cheered the action.

"Thank God," he said. "A lot of people who work at night have not been able to."

Juan Barahona, leader of the Zelaya support base, said officials were under pressure from bars and other businesses hurt by the curfew.

"This is to give the world the impression that there is an environment of freedom in the country," even though that is not the case, he said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been the most vociferous defender of Zelaya, said yesterday that Micheletti was behind the brief detention of journalists for two of his country's state television channels, VTV and Telesur.

Six employees of Telesur and VTV, along with their Honduran driver, were taken by police before a prosecutor after the car rental agency that provided their vehicle allegedly reported it missing, said Larry Sanchez, a technician for Telesur's satellite crew.

Sanchez said the police recommended "that we leave the country, that they couldn't guarantee our safety."

Venezuelan ambassador to Honduras Armando Laguna said the six journalists were released in the early morning hours of yesterday after he intervened, and they returned to their hotel.

Deputy Police Commissioner Hector Mejia confirmed the story, and said that a posterior visit by authorities to the group's hotel came after they received a call about people who might pose "a national security threat." He did not elaborate, but said no one was detained.

Also yesterday, a separate group of VTV employees left Honduras, and Venezuela's ABN state news agency reported that they had been expelled. Mejia said no journalists have been expelled from the country.

The interim government's minister of information, Rene Zepeda, denied authorities are trying to censor the news media, saying "what we want is peace" in Honduras.

Chavez also called on President Barack Obama to withdraw troops from an air base in Honduras to protest the new government. Chavez accused Obama of "wiggling" around the political crisis and warned if he does not take action, "he will end up worse than Bush," a reference to former President George W. Bush.

The United States has maintained the Enrique Soto Cano air base in Honduras for 23 years. The base houses about 350 U.S. soldiers.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, an ally of both Chavez and Zelaya, contended yesterday that the coup was a warning from the United States to stop the growth of governments opposed to US "imperialism."

"This threat doesn't scare us; on the contrary, with more force, we will be stronger," he said.

The United States has spoken out against the coup and supported efforts to restore Zelaya to power. U.S. officials hope mediation efforts led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias will ease Zelaya back into the presidency while resolving the concerns of Honduras' Supreme Court, Congress and military, which say they legally removed the president for violating the constitution. They accuse him of trying to extend his time in office, though Zelaya denies that.

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday urged Hondurans to pursue dialogue and reconciliation after following the situation with "great concern."

Both claimants to Honduras' presidency met separately Thursday with Arias but they refused to talk face to face.

Representatives of Zelaya and Micheletti met again with Arias on Friday and agreed to hold future talks, but no date was set. Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending Central America's civil wars.

About 300 Zelaya supporters held a peaceful demonstration in a park in Tegucigalpa yesterday.

"Mr. Micheletti lifted the curfew, but be careful because we are living in a tense climate and without true democracy," said Esly Lizardo, 65, a protester.

Zelaya's supporters fear the interim government will drag out negotiations so it can remain in power through November's presidential elections.

But former Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez, a delegate of Micheletti who participated in the talks, said his side has not ruled out the possibility of early elections.


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