President Obama on Monday called the coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya as president of Honduras “not legal” and joined with the voices of leaders across the Americas in demanding that democracy be respected.
Mr. Zelaya was arrested Sunday morning and flown into exile in Costa Rica, but Mr. Obama said he “remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there.”
“It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at the White House.
Roberto Micheletti, whom the Honduran Congress appointed to fill out Mr. Zelaya’s term, said the ousted president had been removed legally by the nation’s legislature and courts for trying to stay in office beyond the nation’s term limits and for pushing what the courts deemed an illegal referendum to aid his bid.
“We respect everybody, and we ask only that they respect us and leave us in peace, because the country is headed toward free and transparent general elections in November,” Mr. Micheletti told HRN radio.
Protests outside the presidential palace grew from hundreds to thousands, and on Monday afternoon, soldiers and police advanced behind riot shields, using tear gas to scatter the protesters. The demonstrators, many of them choking on the gas, hurled rocks and bottles, the Associated Press reported.
Security forces fired rifles, but it was not clear whether they were using live ammunition. There were no immediate confirmations of injuries. Reporters saw at least five people detained.
In criticizing the coup, the U.S. joined with leaders of nations ranging from Venezuela to Cuba, according to news services. The Associated Press reported that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to “overthrow” the new government, though Mr. Micheletti shrugged off the threat, telling a radio station: “Nobody scares us.”
Leftist leaders pulled their ambassadors from Honduras.
Mr. Obama, acknowledging a “dark past” in which the U.S. ignored democracy in favor of political stability or geopolitical interests, said America has moved beyond that.
“I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don’t always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable toward the United States,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. is worried that Mr. Zelaya was defying court orders.
She also said that although it appears to be a coup, the U.S. is stopping short of officially designating it as such because that would mean U.S. aid would be halted.
“We are withholding any formal legal determination,” she said.
Mr. Zelaya is an ally of other leftist Latin American leaders such as Mr. Chavez.
Honduran soldiers stormed the president’s residence Sunday morning, hours before a referendum Mr. Zelaya had called to alter the constitution’s term limits. News services reported tanks in the streets and soldiers in riot gear in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
The Organization of American States will hold an extraordinary general assembly meeting Tuesday to discuss the coup.
Mr. Zelaya, meanwhile, will address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, a U.N. official confirmed.