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TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran supreme court barred President Manuel Zelaya from ousting the military chief of staff on Thursday after the army refused to help him run an unofficial referendum on extending his mandate, escalating a constitutional crisis.
Zelaya fired Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who heads the armed forces, and accepted the defence minister's resignation late on Wednesday, saying the shake-up was due "to a crisis caused by some sectors that have promoted destabilisation and chaos."
But the supreme court reversed the president's decision arguing the move was unconstitutional and reinstated Vasquez ahead of Zelaya's referendum scheduled for Sunday.
"The resolution was arbitrary and violated the constitution and the law of the armed forces so the official should be reinstated to his post," court magistrate Rosalinda Cruz told a news conference.
Zelaya has moved the impoverished Central American country closer to Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez since taking power in 2006.
He is organizing the referendum to change the constitution to let him run for a second term, following similar moves by leftist allies in Latin America, but it holds no legal weight after a court ruled it invalid.
Honduran presidents serve four-year terms and the constitution does not allow re-election.
Zelaya rallied supporters in Tegucigalpa on Thursday and vowed to go ahead with the contested vote.
"No one can stop the referendum on Sunday," he shouted to a cheering crowd.
The leader of a small political party has warned that Zelaya could be removed in a coup because of the referendum, which critics say is a power grab by the president.
"The most worrisome part is that today we have seen some threats of a coup against Zelaya," said Cesar Ham, who heads the leftist Democratic Unification Party.
The president moved against the military because they refused to distribute ballot boxes for Sunday's referendum as is customary in Honduran elections, said a source in the presidency. Defence Minister Edmundo Orellana also quit.
Reporting by Gustavo Palencia, editing by Jackie Frank