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Honduras reimposes curfew amid protest threat

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras reimposed a curfew on Wednesday after a peasant protest leader close to deposed President Manuel Zelaya vowed nationwide demonstrations to demand his reinstatement after last month’s coup.

Supporters of Honduras' ousted president Manuel Zelaya sing the national anthem during a protest outside the national congress in Tegucigalpa July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

The interim government said the curfew would run from midnight to 5 a.m., given “continued, open threats by groups who seek to provoke disturbances and disorder ... and to protect the people and their goods.”

The measure came after Rafael Alegria, who led protests in the wake of Zelaya’s June 28 ouster, said followers would choke access routes to the capital, Tegucigalpa, on Thursday and Friday before fresh mediation talks in Costa Rica on Saturday.

The coup and impasse in Honduras, an impoverished exporter of bananas, coffee and textiles, is the worst crisis in Central America since the Cold War and has complicated the foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has sought to improve ties with Latin America.

“(Zelaya) has called on the Honduran people to mobilize, and the people are responding,” said Alegria, a leader of the National Front for Resistance Against the Coup formed after Zelaya was detained at gunpoint by the military and expelled from the country in the middle of the night in his pajamas.

“We are calling from the urgent restoration of institutions, of the constitution and of President Zelaya.”

Roberto Micheletti, installed as president by Congress after the coup, on Wednesday repeated an offer to step down as part of an eventual solution “for the sake of peace in the country, but only as long as Zelaya does not return.”

Micheletti said he was concerned by Zelaya’s threat to take unspecified measures at home and abroad. The deposed leader has said his supporters have the right to stage an insurrection.

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The Organization of American States said on Wednesday it would keep up pressure on the coup leaders, while supporting dialogue to end the crisis.

Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said the OAS would continue to apply “strong sanctions” on the interim government and back the mediation brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

“It is important to keep calm,” Insulza told a meeting of the OAS permanent council in Washington, adding the regional grouping did not “have to do much more ... than keep applying pressure and so allow the process to bear fruit.”

The OAS, a hemispheric pro-democracy body with limited actual powers, gave an ultimatum for the reinstatement of Zelaya and suspended Honduras from membership on July 4 after the interim government refused to restore him.

Zelaya, who says the coup is a power grab by rich political elites who oppose him, gave his own blunt ultimatum this week, saying Saturday’s talks in Costa Rica were the last chance for the interim government to return power to him immediately.

Micheletti, who says the army lawfully removed Zelaya because he violated the constitution by seeking to lift limits on presidential terms, insists that reinstatement is not on the table for discussion.

Insulza said it was important to maintain the OAS suspension of Honduras while pursuing dialogue in the talks hosted by Arias -- “or at least until he says he needs some other kind of mediation.”

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The crisis has split Honduras, driving pro- and anti-Zelaya protesters onto the streets after his ouster, but the level of support for returning the ousted president is hard to gauge.

The former logging magnate, who has international backing for his return to office, had approval ratings of around 30 percent in the months leading up to the coup.

But a poll taken in the days after his ouster and published on Wednesday showed 46 percent of respondents rating him favorably, well above 30 percent for Micheletti.

Arias has invited delegations representing Zelaya and Micheletti to the fresh round of talks. But a spokesman for Arias, Esteban Arrieta, told reporters on Wednesday it was not envisaged that the two leaders would take part personally.

They had declined to meet face-to-face in initial discussions last week.

Despite the entrenched positions, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said he was still hopeful a deal could be struck between the delegations to keep the talks alive.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said.

As the crisis drags into its third week, the United States has urged the Honduran rivals to give dialogue a chance.

A Honduran member of Congress who supports Zelaya’s reinstatement asked Washington to step up sanctions on the interim government, calling for the suspension of visas held by coup leaders and their families and a halt to transfers of remittances from Honduran workers living in the United States.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Washington, John McPhaul in San Jose, Gustavo Palencia and Juana Casas in Tegucigalpa, and Pascal Fletcher in Mexico City; Editing by John O’Callaghan