Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interim Honduran President Roberto Micheletti said in an interview Wednesday that he has been snubbed by U.S. officials while his adversary, ousted President Manuel Zelaya, attempts to force his way back into office by using the Brazilian Embassy in the Honduran capital as a podium to rally support.

In the face of a tense standoff on the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed for calm while attending a U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Zelaya’s surreptitious return to Honduras on Monday an opportunity to restore him to office and “have a peaceful transition of presidential authority and get Honduras back to constitutional and democratic order.”

Mr. Micheletti bristled at such suggestions by Mrs. Clinton and others that Mr. Zelaya’s ouster was unconstitutional.

“We have not spoken to any ranking U.S. officials,” Mr. Micheletti told The Washington Times by telephone, speaking in Spanish. “They have shut the door on us. We want [President Obama] to understand and to send officials to Honduras to see for themselves that we didn’t do anything unconstitutional.

“What has happened in Honduras is part of a judiciary, congressional process that went into effect when Zelaya tried to extend his power and authority against the constitution.”

Mr. Zelaya, a leftist ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was ousted in June when the Honduran Supreme Court ruled he violated the constitution by seeking a second consecutive term. The constitution limits the president to a single term.

The court has since ruled that Mr. Zelaya faces several charges, including treason, and would be subject to trial if he re-entered the country.

He has so far avoided arrest by sneaking into the country and taking shelter at the Brazilian Embassy, where diplomatic protocols put him beyond the reach of Honduran authorities.

Mr. Zelaya called on supporters Tuesday to converge on the capital last night to demand his reinstatement.

Mr. Micheletti said he was equally determined not to give in, accusing Mr. Zelaya of acting like a dictator with “revolutionary intent on inciting violence and disorder.”

The United States, Organization of American States and United Nations have condemned what they say is a military coup and sought to isolate Honduras unless it accepts a negotiated a solution to the standoff.

Mr. Micheletti’s government has rejected an agreement brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that would permit Mr. Zelaya to return and serve out his term as leader of a national-unity government - albeit under sharply curtailed powers.

The country is due to hold presidential elections on Nov. 29, and Mr. Micheletti has said he will step aside after the vote.

The U.S. government has revoked visas for top officials in the interim government and withheld millions of dollars in aid but Mr. Micheletti said the “Honduran government will not cave in to demands.”

Mr. Zelaya is a populist with close ties to other leftist leaders in Latin America who have attempted to change constitutions so they can keep running for re-election.

He had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to return to Honduras before turning up at the Brazilian Embassy on Monday.

In Honduras, Reuters news agency reported Tuesday that hundreds of soldiers and riot police, some in ski masks and toting automatic weapons, have surrounded the Brazilian Embassy, where Mr. Zelaya and roughly 40 supporters are holed up.

In New York, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva described Honduras as under siege and rejected calls to turn Mr. Zelaya over to authorities.

Attempts to reach Mr. Zelaya and his spokesman on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

However, the Honduran Embassy in Washington posted an official statement on Monday condemning the ouster of Mr. Zelaya and the Honduran authorities for “the use of violence and intimidation by military and police forces controlled by the illegitimate government of Micheletti against the people of Honduras and calls for the immediate restoration of peace in Tegucigalpa.”

Mr. Zelaya’s government said in the statement that “from the ground, peaceful demonstrators supporting the return of the constitutional president of Honduras are being attacked and beaten and an overall atmosphere of insecurity is now being imposed around the Embassy of Brazil, where President Manuel Zelaya is stationed.”

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is concerned about Mr. Zelaya’s return and “the possible impact it may have on the situation on the ground, especially with the possibilities for clashes.

“And for this reason, we’ve called on both sides to exercise restraint with this new situation.”

Mr. Kelly said that the U.S. pressed the Honduran government to abide by diplomatic conventions that protect embassies. “We helped get some of the personnel out. We provided some vehicles. But mostly, it was a liaison role to help restore the power and water, and also get personnel out and back to their homes.”

Mr. Micheletti said it is the responsibility of the Brazilian government to turn Mr. Zelaya over to the Honduran authorities.

The Times first reported in July that Mr. Zelaya and his chief of staff, Enrique Flores Lanza, withdrew millions of dollars from the Central Bank of Honduras before his June 28 ouster.

According to Honduran government documents obtained by The Times and testimony by the three witnesses, Mr. Zelaya’s people had stolen about $2.2 million from the Honduran Central Bank. An additional $550,000 was withdrawn hours later from the bank by order of Mr. Lanza, according to bank documents. Mr. Zelaya and his aides denied any wrongdoing.

Two Honduran political opponents of Mr. Zelaya with knowledge of the transactions told The Times Mr. Zelaya planned to use the money in connection with a referendum that if successful would have permitted him to serve a second term as president.

Mr. Micheletti said he fears Mr. Zelaya will cause Honduras to spiral further out of control. He said he hopes the upcoming elections will bring peace back to his country.

“I’m not here because of the military but because of a democratic process initiated by the courts and Congress,” he said. In January, “when the new president is inaugurated, I will be done. I can only hope that the November 29 elections run smooth and that they are free, democratic elections and a new president will be elected for the Honduran people.”

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