(For full coverage of Honduras crisis, see [ID:nN22361272])
* Brazil gov’t losing domestic support for Zelaya refuge
* Critics say Brazil fell for trap set by Hugo Chavez
* Minister says abandoning Zelaya now would be cowardice (Adds Amorim comments)
By Raymond Colitt
BRASILIA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Brazil’s government is facing growing criticism at home over its handling of the Honduran crisis as senior lawmakers accuse it of allowing the ousted president to use its embassy as a political platform.
Manuel Zelaya, who was toppled as Honduran president by a coup on June 28, has set up camp in the Brazilian embassy with dozens of supporters and has given numerous interviews to foreign and domestic media.
His surprise return from exile a week ago triggered violent protests in the capital Tegucigalpa and placed Brazil at the center of the Honduran power struggle and an international diplomatic crisis.
Government and opposition legislators in Brazil’s Congress have urged President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to stop Zelaya from using the embassy as a political theater.
“Zelaya’s political activities are unacceptable. They weaken Brazil’s position and international image,” Eduardo Azeredo, head of the Senate foreign relations committee, told Reuters.
Brazil should formally grant Zelaya political asylum and take him out of Honduras, Azeredo said. Brazil would still be seen as defending a democratically-elected leader without being directly involved in the dispute, he said.
Honduras’ de facto government gave Brazil 10 days to decide what to do with Zelaya, but Lula rejected the ultimatum.
Former president and current Senate chief Jose Sarney, one of Lula’s most influential allies, also criticized the government’s position.
“There’s a certain exaggeration in transforming the embassy into a campaign headquarters. This excess is not good for Brazil or Manuel Zelaya,” said Sarney, adding that the embassy must abide by international rules on nonintervention in a country’s domestic affairs.
Foreign Minister Celso Amorim defended Brazil’s position before a Senate foreign relations committee on Tuesday.
“What’s at stake here is not only a small country but the future of democracy in Central America,” Amorim said. “Tolerating this coup could stimulate others in the region.”
Amorim said Brazil had not acted irresponsibly. The Lula government received Zelaya’s request for refuge only 30 minutes before he arrived at the embassy, Amorim said.
Several weeks ago, Zelaya requested a plane from Brazil to return to Honduras and Amorim himself had denied it, he added.
Major Brazilian newspapers have run critical editorials and almost daily caricatures, mocking Lula’s perceived leniency with Zelaya.
Conservatives are upset that Brazil may have been put into this bind by Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, with whom the more moderate Lula has friendly though sometimes uncomfortable relations.
Chavez had been fiercely advocating Zelaya’s return and is rumored to have provided an airplane for the fellow leftist to fly to El Salvador for his overland return to Honduran.
A front-page caricature in Tuesday’s O Globo newspaper showed Lula, Chavez and Amorim singing Zelaya a lullaby as he dozed under his signature cowboy hat, boots propped up on a chair in his embassy refuge.
In an editorial, O Globo said it was “deplorable that Brasilia allowed itself to be entangled in a Chavez trap.” (Additional reporting by Natuza Nery; Editing by Todd Benson and Anthony Boadle)