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Honduras resists pressure to allow Zelaya's return

REJECTING the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras' interim leaders dug in for a fight today after governments across the region demanded the deposed leftist be restored to power.

In the worst crisis in Central America in a decade, Zelaya was toppled by troops and whisked out of the country on the weekend in a widely condemned coup after he angered opponents with plans to amend the constitution to lift term limits.

The Organization of American States on Wednesday issued a weekend deadline for the interim government to reinstate Zelaya, in a standoff that is testing US President Barack Obama's administration after he promised an era of better relations with the region.

"We have established a democratic government and we will not cede to pressure from anyone. We are a sovereign country," said Roberto Micheletti, who was named as caretaker president by Honduran lawmakers shortly after Zelaya's ouster.

Zelaya, a logging magnate fond of wearing cowboy hats with his suits, has promised to return, but appeared to be waiting for the outcome of the OAS ultimatum. An OAS mission will arrive this week to discuss the ouster, the caretaker government said.

Honduras, an impoverished coffee exporter of around 7 million people, has seen days of protests against Sunday's ouster, but the interim government has rallied supporters onto the streets, underlining divisions over Zelaya's return.

The Honduran Congress approved a decree to crack down on opposition during a nightly curfew imposed after the coup. The decree allows security forces to hold suspects for more than 24 hours without charge and formalizes the prohibition of the right to free association at night.

But Tegucigalpa, the capital city nestled in low-lying hills, has remained mostly calm, with traffic clogging streets and most businesses open during the day, although schools remained closed.


The army ousted a president who took office in 2006 and who had upset the country's traditional elite with a leftward tilt that many worried would take him down the same path as Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez.

His popularity had dipped to around 30 percent in recent months.

The interim government says it took a legal course in ousting Zelaya -- the Supreme Court said it instructed the army to remove him and Congress voted in the acting president until elections to be held in November.

Opponents of Zelaya believe he was pushing the limits of democracy with his drive to extend the single four-year term of presidents to allow re-election. He faces arrest on a raft of criminal charges if he returns to Honduras.

Several Latin American presidents, including Chavez and his allies in Ecuador and Bolivia, have extended term limits that were often written into constitutions as safeguards after decades of dictatorship in many parts of the region.

Obama's administration is playing a limited, behind-the-scenes role to show support for democracy and in Zelaya's restoration without being accused of meddling -- a historic charge against Washington from Latin America.

Washington, which has put off until next week a decision on whether to cut aid to Honduras, is letting the OAS take a leading role.

"We will wait until the (OAS) secretary-general has finished his diplomatic initiative and reports back on July 6 before we take any further action in relationship to assistance," a senior Obama administration official said.


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