OAS suspends Honduras over coup against Zelaya

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras on Saturday after a caretaker government refused to reinstate President Manuel Zelaya, who was toppled in a coup a week ago.

The OAS took the rare step to suspend one of its members after the interim government ignored an OAS ultimatum by the 34-member body to restore Zelaya. It was the strongest move yet by foreign governments to isolate the caretaker government.

In Central America's first coup since the Cold War era Zelaya, a leftist who took power in 2006 and had been due to leave office in 2010, was ousted by troops and sent into exile last Sunday after a dispute over presidential term limits.

The OAS, in a resolution passed by a 33-0 vote late on Saturday night, with Honduras itself not voting, also encouraged member states to review their relations with Honduras.

Venezuela, Brazil and others had sought to include language that would have mandated a cutoff in bilateral cooperation with Honduras -- wording that was opposed by the United States, Canada, Mexico and Colombia among others, diplomats said.

Zelaya said he wanted to try to return to Honduras later on Sunday. But several countries at the OAS meeting in Washington advised against the move, which could sharply escalate tensions since the interim government has said it will arrest him if he returns.

The OAS suspension, which was to take immediate effect, could complicate access to credits from regional lender Inter-American Development Bank for Honduras, a coffee and textile exporter with a population of 7 million that is the hemisphere's third poorest country after Haiti and Nicaragua. The IADB said last week it was suspending loans over the coup.

The OAS resolution also instructed its Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza to step up diplomatic efforts to restore Zelaya, but said, "No such initiative will imply recognition of the regime that emerged from this interruption of the constitutional order."

The Obama administration, European governments and Zelaya's left-wing allies have condemned last Sunday's ouster. The caretaker government, installed hours after the coup, has said it legally removed a president who violated the constitution.

Trip Back?

Zelaya, a wealthy businessman who edged to the left after he came to power, had upset the country's traditional ruling elite, including members of his own Liberal Party, with what critics say was an illegal attempt to lift presidential term limits and by establishing closer ties with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a U.S. adversary.

Speaking at the OAS meeting after the resolution was passed, Zelaya said he planned to fly back to Honduras on Sunday. He had postponed a plan to try to return earlier in the week while the OAS worked on seeking a solution.

Some of Zelaya's left-wing allies in the region have said they would travel with the exiled leader.

But as the OAS meeting continued into the early hours of Sunday, several countries advised against the trip.

Peter Kent, Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs for the Americas, said the safe return of Zelaya could not be guaranteed and urged that instead Insulza make a fresh visit to the country.

An official speaking for Zelaya, Honduras' OAS ambassador Carlos Sosa, said that Insulza might travel on the plane with the ousted president. Insulza himself did not confirm he would travel with Zelaya.

Interim Government Defiant

Insulza, who visited the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on Friday, said on Saturday that the interim government showed no willingness to restore Zelaya to office or recognize there had been a rupture in the constitutional order.

Ahead of the expected suspension, the interim government remained defiant on Saturday, announcing it would renounce the OAS charter. It has rallied supporters on the streets of the capital and other cities in a show of support.

"It is better to pay this high price... than live undignified and bow the our heads to the demands of foreign governments," said Roberto Micheletti, named caretaker president by the Honduran Congress after Zelaya's ouster.

In Tegucigalpa, several thousand Zelaya supporters marched toward the presidential palace on Saturday, observed by troops posted in strategic spots and a military helicopter overhead.

A night-time curfew is still in place but the capital city is mostly calm during the day.

The coup has thrown up a test for regional diplomacy and for President Barack Obama's ability to mend the battered U.S. image in Latin America.

So far, the Obama administration has given the OAS the lead role in seeking a solution. It has also held off on issuing a legal determination of the ouster as a coup -- a definition that would force a cutoff of aid to the country.

[Source: By Jim Wolf, Reuters, Washington, 05Jul09]

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