Honduras rejects OAS appeal

TEGUCIGALPA: Honduras rebuffed a personal appeal from the Americas' top international diplomat Friday, refusing to reinstate President Manuel Zelaya and setting the stage for a dramatic showdown if the ousted leader returns to reclaim power this weekend.

Jose Miguel Insulza, who heads the Organization of American States, said the hemispheric body would decide Saturday whether to suspend Honduras, a move that could lead to further sanctions against one of the Latin Americas' poorest countries and encourage other organizations and countries to halt aid and loans.

The OAS chief had flown to Honduras Friday to demand that the interim government restore Zelaya before a Saturday morning deadline. Zelaya was ousted in a military-backed coup Sunday and flown into exile, but the world community has rallied around him to demand his return to office.

"We wanted to ask that this situation be reversed," Insulza told a news conference in the Honduran capital after meeting with Supreme Court President Jorge Rivas, the attorney general and other political leaders. "Unfortunately, one must say that there appears to be no willingness to do this."

Insulza said Honduran officials gave him documents showing that charges are pending or have been brought against Zelaya, charges they say justified the coup. The military-backed ouster came after Zelaya pushed for a referendum on constitutional reform that the Supreme Court, the attorney general and Congress had all said was illegal.

Earlier Friday, Honduras' Supreme Court, which authorized Sunday's coup, said it wouldn't agree to restore the toppled leftist leader despite Insulza's demands.

"Insulza asked Honduras to reinstate Zelaya, but the president of the court categorically answered that there is an arrest warrant for him," said court spokesman Danilo Izaguirre.

"Now the OAS has to decide what it will do," Izaguirre said.

Insulza had conceded before traveling to Honduras that his mission was unlikely to succeed, saying: "It will be very hard to turn things around in a couple of days."

During the trip, the diplomat also met with the two main candidates in Honduras' Nov. 29 elections, as well with the leftist Popular Block, an umbrella group of farm, labor and student groups that largely supports Zelaya.

But he said he would not see Roberto Micheletti, whom Congress named president after Zelaya's ouster, in order to avoid legitimizing the government.

Micheletti's foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, said that Insulza "can negotiate all he wants, except for Zelaya's situation."

"That is not negotiable because he cannot return to Honduras, and if he does he will be arrested and tried," Ortez said.

Zelaya, who was traveling in Central America, planned to return to Honduras on Sunday, according to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Zelaya has said he would be traveling with Insulza and the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador.

Honduras' interim government has said it will arrest Zelaya if he returns, setting up a potentially volatile showdown.

Contrary to assertions by the Micheletti government, Interpol on Friday released a statement saying it had not received any request to issue an arrest warrant for Zelaya.

Micheletti led a raucous chant of "Democracy!" before a giant crowd waving blue-and-white Honduran flags in front of the palace that Micheletti has occupied since Zelaya was seized by soldiers. He pledged to stand firm in the face of the international pressure.

"I am the president of all Hondurans," he proclaimed.

A rival rally by thousands of Zelaya backers marched to the offices of the OAS. Marchers carried a banner with a picture of Zelaya and the words: "Mel our friend, the people are with you!"

Despite feared violence, the two groups did not clash. Police helicopters circled overhead and dozens of soldiers and police guarded the palace.

Micheletti's supporters say the army was justified in ousting Zelaya — on orders of Congress and the Supreme Court — because he had called a referendum which they claim he intended to use to extend his rule. Zelaya denies that and has said he will no longer press for constitutional changes.

Nations around the world have promised to shun Micheletti and the nation already is suffering economic reprisals.

Neighboring countries have imposed trade blockades, major lenders have cut aid, the Obama administration has halted joint military operations and all European Union ambassadors have abandoned the Honduran capital.

If the OAS does suspend Honduras, Insulza said a government led by a new Honduran president after elections in November would not be automatically reinstated into the organization.

"It is not by any means automatic," Insulza said. "To eliminate a suspension, it should be unanimous decision, and it is not so obvious that it would be."

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras issued a statement expressing "deep concern over restrictions imposed on certain fundamental rights" by Micheletti's government, including a curfew in force since Sunday, and "reports of intimidation and censorship against certain individuals and media outlets."

Micheletti's government is so eager to find a friend that it announced it had been recognized by Israel and Italy — surprising the governments of those countries. Italy withdrew its ambassador to protest the coup, and Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said: "All rumors about Israeli recognition of the new president are wholly unfounded."

Micheletti asked Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu to help mediate the conflict, and she arrived in Tegucigalpa on Friday.

"I come to try to talk with anyone who wants to listen to search for peace for this country," she said.