TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Hondurans spilled into the streets of the capital on Monday night, banging pots and pans and joining rebel police in defiance of a curfew imposed after a presidential election that was heavily criticized by the Organization of American States.
Some police officers abandoned their posts and joined carnival-like demonstrations that erupted across the city hours after night fell and the curfew was supposed to have begun.
A statement issued in the name of the National Police said the officers were upset with the government over a political crisis that was not their responsibility.
“Our people are sovereign,” said a member of the elite Cobra riot police, reading the statement. “We cannot confront and repress their rights.”
Authorities finished counting votes on Monday after a week of increasingly widespread criticism about the Nov. 26 election, with Organization of American States (OAS) lending credence to opposition claims the government manipulated the results to ensure a win.
“The tight margin, along with the irregularities, errors and systematic problems that have surrounded this election, does not allow the mission to be certain about the results,” said former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, heading the OAS election observation mission in the Central American country.
Electoral authorities said President Juan Orlando Hernandez won 42.98 percent of the vote, compared with opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla’s 41.39 percent, based on 99.96 percent of ballot boxes tallied.
However, authorities refrained from declaring a winner, with Nasralla’s center-left opposition Alliance demanding a wide recount of nearly a third of votes, a request backed by the OAS and European Union election observers.
Lending more support to that view, a leader of rebellious Cobra riot police told reporters the country wanted a vote-by-vote recount to clarify the results, and called on the armed forces to come out in support of the police protest.
The Alliance, which claims that results sheets from ballot boxes were altered, is expected to formally contest the results.
President Hernandez, who has been praised by the United States for his crackdown on street gangs, also refrained from calling himself the winner on Monday, despite claiming victory several times since the election.
“I make a call for peace, for brotherhood, for sanity, for national unity,” he told reporters.
In a striking sign of support for Hernandez, 49, the U.S. State Department cleared the way for Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid two days after the election, certifying that the government has been fighting corruption and upholding human rights, a document seen by Reuters showed.
The government was struggling to contain the fallout from the chaos on Monday evening.
Even former TV star Nasralla joined a crowd of boisterous supporters, jumping up and down in a tan suit while flashing peace signs and joining a chant of “the dictatorship will fall,” a video posted on Twitter showed.
The additional powers granted to the army and police including the nighttime curfew from Friday were intended to stem the protests and have led to more than a thousand arrests. Up to 12 people have been killed in the protests or during the curfew.
Tens of thousands peacefully took to the streets on Sunday in a show of force for the opposition.
The police revolt began when more than 200 members of the Cobras refused to carry on battling protesters, saying it was tantamount to taking sides. Nasralla has repeatedly called on the security forces to ignore orders.
“We are rebelling,” said one of the policemen, who covered his face in a ski mask and declined to give his name. “We call on all the police nationally to act with their conscience.”
They soon had the support of other units, with reports that their protests had spread to other cities.
The police also said they were angry about the death of two colleagues shot while they were enforcing the curfew on Sunday night, an attack a spokesman said was unrelated to the election protests.
Two civilian protesters were killed in the capital overnight, their relatives said, although authorities did not confirm the deaths.
The OAS called for peaceful protests, said politicians must not incite violence and that security forces must respect human rights.
Last week, at least three people were killed as soldiers broke up protesters’ blockades. One police source and local reports said five more had been shot dead in the north of the country on Friday. The deaths have not been confirmed by authorities.
Early last week, Nasralla, a 64-year-old former sportscaster and game show host, appeared set for an upset victory, gaining a five-point lead with more than half of the ballots tallied.
The counting process suddenly halted for more than a day and began leaning in favor of Hernandez after resuming.
Opposition leaders on Monday showed a sample of their own records of polling that did not match with the tribunal‘s.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused the United States of backing vote fraud in Honduras, while the U.S. embassy on Monday called for a “transparent, impartial, and opportune election result.”
Honduras struggles with violent drug gangs, one of world’s highest murder rates and endemic poverty, driving a tide of its people to migrate to the United States.
Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Writing by Michael O'Boyle and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Andrew Hay and Mary Milliken