U.S. limits visas in Honduras, stepping up pressure
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it will temporarily restrict issuing U.S. visas in Honduras, raising pressure on the government that took power after a June 28 coup to step down.
The State Department, which has repeatedly condemned the military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, said that from Wednesday it would only provide visa services to potential immigrants and emergency cases at its embassy in Tegucigalpa.
The Obama administration has urged Honduran authorities to accept proposals put forward by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whose efforts to end the crisis have stalled over the de facto government's refusal to allow Zelaya to return to power.
The San Jose accord proposed last month by the Nobel Peace Prize winner would have allowed Zelaya to return to office until elections are held by the end of November.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the visa decision was intended to reinforce an Organization of American States' delegation that landed in Honduras on Monday to try to persuade the de facto government to accept the Arias' plan.
"In support of this mission and as a consequence of the de facto regime's reluctance to sign the San Jose accord, the U.S. Department of State is conducting a full review of our visa policy in Honduras," Kelly said in a written statement.
"As part of that review, we are suspending non-emergency, non-immigrant visa services in the consular section of our embassy in Honduras, effective August 26," Kelly added. "We firmly believe a negotiated solution is the appropriate way forward and the San Jose Accord is the best solution."
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters the visa decision was "a signal of how seriously we are watching the situation" and said Washington was considering other steps though it was premature to disclose these.
Another U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the visa suspension would chiefly hit Honduran tourists and business people, although he noted that most of these already have multiple entry visas that are still valid.
The de facto government, which has resisted pressure from Western hemisphere governments and international bodies to reinstate Zelaya, vowed on Tuesday to stick to a plan to hold a presidential election in November, even if other countries don't recognize the result.
"There will be elections whether they are recognized or not," the country's caretaker leader Roberto Micheletti told foreign ministers from the region on a visit with Organization of American States chief Jose Miguel Insulza.
They included ministers from Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Micheletti said his country could survive any economic sanctions imposed over his refusal to allow Zelaya's return.
"We are not afraid of anyone's embargo," Micheletti told the ministers. "This country can get by without your support."
The Honduran crisis has divided Washington. Earlier this month, 16 Democratic Congressmen wrote to Obama urging him to freeze the assets of coup leaders. But a group of Republican senators has sought to hold up confirmation of State Department appointments due to the administration's support for Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged the international community, and the United States in particular, to ratchet up pressure on the de facto government in light of a report documenting abuses against Zelaya's supporters.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said on Friday that four people had been shot dead in protests since the June 28 coup. It also criticized more than 3,500 arbitrary arrests aimed at silencing protests.
The United States, a long-time ally of Honduras and the country's top trading partner, has suspended some military aid, but the Obama administration has resisted imposing more far-reaching sanctions, citing the detrimental impact they could have on the country's struggling economy.
"The U.S. government, in particular, could play a key role through the use of carefully targeted sanctions," said HRW director for the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco.
Vivanco said the Obama administration should directly target members of the de facto government by denying them access to the U.S. banking system and targeting private companies associated with these officials.
(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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