July 21, 2009 / 7:53 PM / 8 years ago

WRAPUP 2-Honduras pressure mounts, U.S. wants deal "now"

(For full coverage of Honduras, click on [ID:nN28343997])

* U.S. wants a deal “now”

* Zelaya says de facto government will have to back down

* Mediator pushing for new round of talks on Wednesday

By Simon Gardner

TEGUCIGALPA, July 21 (Reuters) - The United States and Europe stepped up pressure on Honduras’ de facto government on Tuesday as deposed President Manuel Zelaya and his supporters called on Washington to pave the way for his return.

With negotiations deadlocked and Zelaya vowing to return to Honduras within days, some fear Central America’s worst crisis since the end of the Cold War could flare into violence.

Talks mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias collapsed over the weekend but he hopes to bring both sides back to the negotiating table on Wednesday..

The U.S. government threw its weight behind Arias’ proposal that Zelaya, who was toppled in a June 28 coup, be reinstated to set up a coalition government.

“We’re in constant contact with a number of countries in the hemisphere regarding the situation in Honduras, and we believe the Arias mediation is the right way to go, and the time is now to ... resolve this issue,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters.

“We think that this is the best (way) ... to restore the constitutional order in the country, and we want to see that happen now,” he said.

The government that took power when Zelaya was toppled has not been recognized by any other country, but it refuses to allow his return to power and vows to arrest him on arrival.

The crisis is testing President Barack Obama as he seeks to improve U.S. relations with Latin America, where a growing bloc of leftist leaders that includes Zelaya has challenged Washington’s influence in recent years.

Obama has already cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras but has let Arias and the Organization of American States take the lead on diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.

He faces pressure from Latin American heavyweight Brazil and other countries in the region who want more pressure on Honduras’ de facto government but at home some Republicans in Congress feel Obama is showing too much support to Zelaya.

ZELAYA CONFIDENT

Speaking from exile in Nicaragua, Zelaya said he would soon be back in Honduras.

“It is impossible to sustain a regime with bayonets. The world will not allow it, starting with the United States,” he said in an interview with Honduras’ Radio Globo.

Zelaya was expelled from the textile and coffee exporting country in his pajamas in the middle of the night, accused of violating the constitution by trying to extend presidential term limits. The army threw him out of the country after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest.

His rivals say he was also seeking to turn the traditionally conservative country into a satellite of Venezuela’s firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez.

Zelaya has repeatedly said his supporters have the right to insurrection but he said on Tuesday he was against any military intervention and would return “peacefully”.

He made a failed bid to return to Honduras earlier this month. Soldiers blocked the runway and at least one protester was killed in clashes with the army.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim called U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to complain that talks were dragging on too long and that Zelaya should be reinstated without conditions, a Brazilian diplomat said.

“The negotiations must not reward a coup, which could in turn encourage other coups,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Zelaya’s supporters hope Washington will ultimately force interim leader Roberto Micheletti to back down.

“We think we are close to a deal, because there is international pressure for the coup-mongers to talk,” said Juan Vazquez, 35, an indigenous leader who joined around 500 Zelaya supporters in a march in the capital Tegucigalpa on Tuesday.

“Zelaya will get all the support he needs from the people to get him back into the presidency,” said Jose Israel Estrada, 60, as he listened to Zelaya speak from Nicaragua over a dusty radio at the gate to the home of the ousted leader’s mother, in his native central province of Olancho.

The Swedish European Union presidency said the bloc would continue to restrict political contacts with Micheletti’s government and “consider further targeted measures”.

The interim government remains defiant, saying it would not row back on its decision to bar Zelaya’s reinstatement.

It also gave the staff at Venezuela’s embassy 72 hours to quit the country. They said they would refuse to leave. (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sean Mattson in Lepaguare, Tim Gaynor in Washington, Juana Casas and John McPhaul in San Jose; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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