July 28, 2009 / 6:26 PM / in 8 years

Honduras leaders under pressure as US revokes visas

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

* U.S. revokes visas of four Honduran officials

* Supreme Court justice, head of Congress targeted

* Micheletti leads TV prayer session for peace (Adds names of two more officials targeted, Micheletti on TV)

By Claudia Parsons

TEGUCIGALPA, July 28 (Reuters) - Honduras’ coup leaders came under new pressure on Tuesday to allow ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s return to power as the United States revoked visas for four members of the de facto government.

Washington has refused to recognize the government led by Roberto Micheletti, who took over when Zelaya was toppled in a June 28 coup, and it already had cut $16.5 million in U.S. military aid to the Central American country.

Zelaya had asked President Barack Obama to revoke U.S. visas for the coup leaders and he quickly welcomed the move.

"They are isolated, they are surrounded, they are alone," the deposed leftist said of the coup leaders.

"This is a coup that has been dead from the start, so they will have to abandon their position of intransigence in the coming hours," he said in Nicaragua, where he is camped out near the border with Honduras.

Micheletti’s government, backed by the Supreme Court and Congress, has refused to bend to international condemnation of the coup. It insists that Zelaya cannot come back and serve his remaining six months in office.

Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, was ousted as he sought a referendum to change the constitution, a move the Supreme Court ruled illegal. Zelaya’s critics say he was trying to extend presidential term limits so he could be re-elected, but he denies the claims.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has mediated talks between both sides, but the negotiations so far have failed.

Arias, who will host a regional heads of state meeting in northern Costa Rica on Wednesday, said he supported the U.S. move to strip some Micheletti officials of their visas as a way to pressure those holding power to reopen dialogue.

"If the pressure keeps rising with drastic measures, the de facto government in Honduras will possibly be more compelled to sit down at the table again," Arias told reporters.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said official diplomatic visas had been revoked for four individuals. "We don’t recognize Roberto Micheletti as the president of Honduras, we recognize Manuel Zelaya," he said. [nN28197151]

Kelly did not name those affected but said the diplomatic visas of others in government also were being reviewed.

Representative Connie Mack, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives who visited Honduras over the weekend, told Reuters it was his understanding that two of the people who had their U.S. visas revoked were Tomas Arita Valle, the Supreme Court justice who signed the order for Zelaya’s arrest, and Jose Alfredo Saavedra, president of the Honduran Congress.

Mack criticized the move as intimidation.

Two others who confirmed they had their visas revoked were human rights ombudsman Ramon Custodio and Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, defense minister in the interim government.

Micheletti told reporters at the presidential palace on Tuesday that his U.S. visa had not been revoked.

Rosary in hand, Micheletti later appeared on state television to lead viewers in a "Day of Prayer" for peace. "I ask for forgiveness from those who for one reason or another do not agree with us, and I ask God to show them the light so they realize it is more important to live in peace," he said.

EUROPEAN UNION STEPS

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said during a visit to Venezuela he would ask the European Union to take similar punitive steps against the interim government. The EU has suspended all budgetary support payments for Honduras.

The Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank have frozen loans in a move the interim government says will cost $200 million in 2009, a blow to the coffee and textile exporter that already is one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

Zelaya in recent days had questioned whether the U.S. government was doing enough to push for his return, and also called for a ban on the coup leaders’ bank transactions.

Zelaya said as many as 1,000 of his supporters have made the trek to join him in Nicaragua, dodging road blocks and a curfew in the border region of Honduras.

Sporting his trademark cream-colored cowboy hat, Zelaya briefly crossed the border into Honduras last Friday but stepped back from security forces waiting to arrest him, saying he wanted to avoid a massacre. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his actions as "reckless" and not helpful to the negotiation process.

Julia Sweig, a Latin America specialist at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said suspending visas would hurt since "they need to be here (Washington) to press their case and maintain their lobbying efforts." (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Susan Cornwell, Sue Pleming and Tim Gaynor in Washington, Mica Rosenberg, Marco Aquino in Honduras, Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Costa Rica and Ivan Castro in Nicaragua; Editing by Paul Simao)



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