Honduran coup general says army "saved democracy"

TEGUCIGALPA Thu Jul 9, 2009 10:43pm EDT

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TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran armed forces chief who ousted President Manuel Zelaya said the decision to throw him out of the country was made by "the state" to save lives, because violence would have erupted had he remained.

General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, leader of the joint chiefs of staff, told Reuters it was a difficult decision for him to topple Zelaya on June 28, because the two were friends.

But he said he was following orders from the Supreme Court and Congress, which have accused Zelaya of violating the constitution by trying to lift presidential term limits.

"The outside world sees us as bad guys but inside the country we are the ones who saved democracy. ... The best judge we will have is history," Vasquez Velasquez said in an interview at his office at the joint chiefs headquarters.

"We did it out of duty and for love of country because democracy was at risk," he said.

Soldiers rousted Zelaya out of bed and put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas in order to stop a vote to gauge public support for a constituent assembly that could have rewritten the constitution and lifted the term limits.

Zelaya's ouster was popular with many at home, although pro-Zelaya protesters have clashed with troops on the streets.

But the United States condemned it as a coup and the Organization of American States suspended Honduras' membership.

Many legal experts agree Zelaya overstepped his bounds, but the response of throwing him out of the country and denying him the chance to appear before a judge or a political trial has been even more controversial.

Vasquez Velasquez said the decision to expel Zelaya from the country was made jointly by the Supreme Court, leaders of Congress and the electoral tribunal but he refused to say who exactly gave the order.

"The state had to take action that would not put the safety of the people at risk in order to save lives, given that if the president were thrown in jail here his demonstrators could have broken down the jail and created worse problems," Vasquez Velasquez said.

"Risks were taken in order to avoid greater evils," he said.

Zelaya, and the politician installed by Congress in his place after the coup, Roberto Micheletti, traveled to Costa Rica on Thursday for talks with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has been chosen to mediate in the Honduran crisis.

But the two rivals did not meet face to face, although they left delegations to hold talks.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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