Thousands of Hondurans demonstrated on Wednesday for the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, who vowed to fly home this weekend despite a warrant for his arrest. Thousands more rallied in favor of the military-backed government.
Newly appointed President Roberto Micheletti said it would take a foreign invasion to put Zelaya back in power, and said he was sending a delegation to Washington in an attempt to reverse the country’s increasing international isolation, though his own foreign minister later denied that.
France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Colombia joined other nations on Wednesday in recalling their ambassadors. The Pentagon suspended joint US-Honduran military operations and the World Bank said it was freezing loans. Honduras’ three neighbors have suspended cross-border trade.
Soldiers stormed Zelaya’s residence and flew him into exile Sunday after he insisted on trying to hold a referendum asking Hondurans if they want to change the constitution. The Supreme Court, Congress and the military all deemed his planned ballot illegal. Zelaya backed down Tuesday, saying he will no longer push for constitutional changes.
Seeking to stem internal unrest, Congress approved a bill Wednesday that toughens a curfew in place since the coup. The law gives authorities the power to conduct warrantless arrests and removes constitutional rights to assembly and movement during the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
Both sides of the dispute mobilized supporters in the streets Wednesday, with a pro-Zelaya march in the capital and pro-Micheletti demonstrations in other cities. No violence was reported.
“We want Mel!” 30-year-old farm hand Javier Santos yelled over a megaphone, using Zelaya’s nickname, as marchers walked to the local offices of the Organization of American States and sang the national anthem, fists thrust skyward. No violence was reported, though businesses quickly lowered their shutters as marchers approached.
The largest pro-Micheletti rally was in Choluteca, 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of the capital, where demonstrators wore the blue and white of the Honduran flag.
Those demonstrations received heavy coverage on Honduran television stations, which all but ignored the pro-Zelaya protests. Leftist broadcasters say they have been forced off the air or had signals interrupted by soldiers under orders of the new government. Micheletti said he would look into the allegations.
The OAS gave Micheletti until Saturday to step aside before Honduras is suspended from the group, an ultimatum Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said was meant “to show clearly that military coups will not be accepted. We thought we were in an era when military coups were no longer possible in this hemisphere.”
Zelaya delayed plans to return Thursday to let that deadline play out.
“I’m going to respect those 72 hours that the OAS asked for,” he said in Panama, where he attended a presidential inauguration.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Micheletti vowed Zelaya would be arrested if he returns, even though the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador have agreed to accompany him, along with the heads of the OAS and the U.N. General Assembly.
“He can no longer return to the presidency of the republic unless a president from another Latin American country comes and imposes him using guns,” Micheletti said.
He also made a bold claim, suggesting the entire Honduran population backs his interim government. Though Zelaya still enjoys strong support, especially among the poor majority, Micheletti warned that all “7.5 million Hondurans will be ready to defend our territory” against a foreign invasion.
His foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, also threatened Zelaya’s escorts, saying: “We will let his companions enter if they represent friendly countries. If not, no.”
The new government was on a long-shot diplomatic offensive Wednesday, ordering home Honduras’ pro-Zelaya ambassadors to the United States, the United Nations and the OAS. U.N. Ambassador Jorge Arturo Reyna said he took orders only from Zelaya’s government, but Honduras’ ambassador to the United States returned home and said he was recognizing Micheletti’s government.
“This is not a coup d’etat, but rather a process in which a judicial order has been carried out,” Roberto Flores Bermudez said.
The ambassador to the OAS could not be located for comment.
Later on Wednesday, Micheletti blamed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez _ a vocal leftist ally of Zelaya _ for the crisis Honduras faces.
“The intervention of Chavez is clear and well-defined in the situation Honduras is living through,” Micheletti told a news conference.
On Tuesday, Micheletti said he was worried about the possibility of invasion from other Latin American countries. He did not name specific countries, but earlier Chavez said any aggression toward Zelaya from Micheletti’s government should prompt a military intervention by the United Nations.
Venezuela’s socialist leader said Wednesday that he would have liked to accompany Zelaya when he returns to Honduras this weekend, but decided it wasn’t “prudent.”
“I wanted to go, but I shouldn’t, if I’m going to be at all prudent,” he said. “Now they’re saying it’s my fault _ the coup-plotters are saying it’s my fault they overthrew Zelaya.”
Micheletti also said that Honduras had sent a delegation to Washington, hoping to win international support that has eluded the new government. The coup has been condemned by countries worldwide from across the political spectrum, as well as by the UN General Assembly.
Micheletti said Wednesday morning that the delegation had already arrived in Washington. But Ortez later said nobody had been sent. Insulza’s deputy, Albert Ramdin, said the OAS would not receive any pro-Micheletti delegation in any case.
“Members of the OAS stated very clearly that we don’t recognize anybody else than President Zelaya as constitutional president of Honduras,” he said.
The Obama administration has also sided clearly with Zelaya, despite criticism from Republicans that this puts it on the same side as Chavez and the Castros in Cuba. Micheletti told the AP he has had no contacts with any US official since the coup.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday that joint US-Honduran military operations are on hold “as we assess that situation.” The US has close relations with Honduras’ military and has some 800 personnel at an air base north of the Honduran capital used primarily for anti-drug operations.
Outside the heavily guarded presidential palace, where Micheletti was working in the same office used by Zelaya, hundreds of student activists erected barricades of boulders, signposts and metal sheeting. They covered their faces with bandanas and carried bats, branches and gasoline-filled bottles.
Police moved toward them but backed off before making contact. The students later removed the barricades and joined the larger, peaceful march.
Many protesters said authorities were trying to prevent Zelaya supporters from converging on the capital for demonstrations. Natalie O’Hara said her caravan was stopped at five military checkpoints on its way into Tegucigalpa. She said they were let through only because they hid their signs and told soldiers they were for Micheletti.
Protesters lined up outside a Burger King that their comrades had ransacked in previous days because the franchise is owned by Micheletti supporters. Some sat in the frames of smashed windows, moving the bandannas covering their mouths to eat their hamburgers and fries.
There were heavy police and army patrols throughout Honduras’ main cities and highways, and some hospitals and schools were closed due to walkouts by pro-Zelaya teachers and health workers. But it was life as usual for most of the capital.
“We still have to go to work, despite what happened with the government,” said Manfredo Brizzio, a tour operator who said he supports Zelaya but doesn’t have time to demonstrate.
Two small explosives detonated in the capital, near the Supreme Court and the offices of a pro-Micheletti radio station. Police would not comment, but witnesses said there were no injuries or major damage.