Honduras standoff at Brazil embassy set for long haul

Wed Sep 23, 2009 9:12am EDT

By Gustavo Palencia and Anahi Rama

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Honduran soldiers and riot police surrounded the Brazilian embassy, where ousted President Manuel Zelaya was sheltering on Wednesday, in what could turn into a long standoff and deepen the country’s crisis.

Hundreds of security forces, some in ski masks and toting automatic weapons, cordoned off a large area around the embassy building in Tegucigalpa where Zelaya holed up with his family and a group of about 40 supporters.

Leftist Zelaya slipped back into Honduras on Monday, ending almost three months of exile after he was toppled in a June 28 coup and bringing the world’s attention to his cause again.

Brazil’s government said it would guarantee his protection inside its embassy and called on the U.N. Security Council to discuss Central America’s worst political crisis in decades.

Several hundred troops and police, some firing tear gas, cleared pro-Zelaya demonstrators from around the embassy on Tuesday morning, injuring 30 people.

De facto leader Roberto Micheletti said Zelaya could stay in the embassy “for five to 10 years” if he wanted, hinting that the administration is preparing for a long conflict.

Electricity and water were briefly cut to the embassy on Tuesday, but food was sent in, witnesses said.

The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States have urged dialogue to bring Zelaya back to office in the Central American country.

The Honduras crisis has been U.S. President Barack Obama’s most serious challenge so far in Latin America and he has been criticized by regional governments for not taking a tough enough stance to reverse the coup, despite cutting some aid.

Honduras’ de facto government refused to soften its position against Zelaya’s attempt to retake power.

“Zelaya will never return to be president of this country,” Micheletti said in an interview with Reuters.

He said later he was willing to talk to Zelaya if the ousted president recognized the validity of presidential elections scheduled for November. But he insisted Zelaya face legal action, hurting the chances of any negotiations taking place.

ALL-DAY CURFEW

The leaders of the coup, backed by the country’s military, Supreme Court and Congress, insist Zelaya must face trial for violating the constitution and have said Brazil must turn him over to Honduran authorities or grant him political asylum outside the country.

A curfew, which has virtually ground the capital to a halt, was extended into Wednesday, closing airports, schools and shops.

Police said crowds tried to loot stores on the empty streets on Tuesday night, as most people huddled in their houses afraid to be detained for violating the curfew.

“I’m really worried about the situation because it doesn’t seem like they are resolving anything through dialogue, instead there is just disorder and chaos,” said 32-year-old Tegucigalpa resident Karen Agustia.

Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest, saying he had broken the law by pushing for constitutional reforms that critics say were an attempt to change presidential term limits and extend his rule.

He denied the allegations and says he had no intention of staying in power beyond the end of his term in January 2010. Zelaya had upset Honduras’ business groups, opposition leaders and a large chunk of his own party by developing a close alliance with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez.

(Writing by Mica Rosenberg)

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