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Honduras vows to close Brazil embassy, cracks down

HONDURAS' de facto government threatened yesterday to close Brazil's embassy for harboring ousted President Manuel Zelaya and moved to suppress dissent, defying international pressure to give up power.

The government, which took power after a June 28 coup, also denied entry to an Organization of American States delegation that had hoped to help broker a solution to the crisis.

The moves were aimed at stifling opposition and sending a clear message that it would not allow the leftist Zelaya's return to power under any circumstances, but they will also likely bring further international condemnation.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he would ignore a 10-day deadline set by de facto leader Roberto Micheletti to decide what to do with Zelaya, who is holed up with his family and some supporters in Brazil's embassy in the capital.

"Brazil will not comply with an ultimatum from a government of coup mongers," Lula told reporters at a summit of African and South American leaders in Venezuela.

Lula also demanded an apology from Micheletti, but the government instead warned that Brazil would lose its right to have an embassy in Honduras if it ignores the deadline.

Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup on June 28, but he secretly returned from exile last Monday, sparking a tense standoff with the de facto civilian government that has promised to arrest him on charges of treason.

Hundreds of soldiers and riot police have surrounded the embassy all week, while protesters have mounted almost daily marches to demand Zelaya be reinstated.

Lula has said Zelaya can stay as long as necessary, but Micheletti's government told Brazil to either grant the deposed president asylum or hand him over for prosecution.

"We urge the Brazilian government to define the status of Mr. Zelaya in a period of no more than 10 days," it said. "If not, we will be obliged to take additional measures."

Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez said the embassy's sovereignty would be respected and there were no plans to raid it, but he faulted Brazil for escalating the crisis by agreeing to house Zelaya. "The Lula government is to blame."

He also said the OAS delegation was denied entry because it had been warned not to come yet. The OAS accused the de facto government of blocking a peaceful solution to the crisis.


Zelaya, a logging magnate who is rarely without his trademark cowboy hat, urged his followers to descend on the capital to pressure for his return.

"I call on you to mobilize throughout Honduras, and that everyone who can come to Tegucigalpa to fight in the final offensive," he said in a statement on local Radio Globo.

The government responded by issuing a decree allowing it to suspend freedom of speech, ban protests and suspend broadcasting rights for media groups, citing "disturbances of the peace."

Two local media groups critical of the government -- Radio Globo and Cholusat Sur -- have already been taken off the air several times since the coup.

The United Nations Security Council on Friday condemned harassment of the Brazilian embassy. Brazilian officials say food and supplies have only occasionally been allowed in and troops have blasted the building with high-frequency sounds.

Zelaya upset conservative elites by allying himself with Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. He demands to be restored to power, but the de facto government says presidential elections in November will resolve the crisis.

The showdown in Honduras is US President Barack Obama's first serious diplomatic test in Latin America, a region where Washington's influence has waned in recent years.

Obama has cut some US aid to Honduras since the coup and pushed for Zelaya's return, but several Latin American leaders say he has not done enough to broker a solution.

Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest. His critics say he broke the law by pushing for constitutional reforms they saw as a bid to change presidential term limits and extend his rule. Zelaya denies wanting to stay in power.

His return stoked tensions in Honduras, a coffee and textile producing nation. One man was shot and killed in a clash between police and Zelaya supporters last week as pressure mounted to let him return to office.

The United States, the European Union and the OAS have all urged dialogue to bring Zelaya back to office. But the Micheletti government insists he must face justice.


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