December 1, 2017 / 7:06 AM / 16 days ago

One dead, scores arrested in unrest over delayed Honduran vote count

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - At least one protester died, over 20 people were injured and more than 100 others were arrested for looting in Honduras after a delayed and disputed presidential vote count sparked unrest amid opposition accusations of electoral fraud.

Honduras was due to publish the final result of last Sunday’s presidential election at 9 p.m. local time (0300 GMT) on Friday, the electoral tribunal said, but opposition complaints about the count appeared set to impede that.

Election results initially favored opposition candidate and TV star Salvador Nasralla by five points with more than half the votes counted. They then swung in favor of U.S.-backed center-right President Juan Orlando Hernandez after the count came to a halt on Monday and resumed over a day later, sparking protests.

The tribunal has said it will hand-count some 1,031 outstanding ballot boxes with irregularities - or nearly 6 percent of the total - after the count halted with Hernandez ahead by less than 50,000 votes, or about 1.5 percentage points.

However, Nasralla’s center-left alliance has called for votes to be recounted in three of Honduras’ 18 departments, or regions, and refused to recognize the tribunal’s special count until its demands for a wider review were met.

“If Juan Orlando wins, we’re ready to accept that, but we know that wasn’t the case, we know that Salvador won and that’s why they’re refusing the transparency demands,” said Marlon Ochoa, campaign manager of Nasralla’s alliance.

International concern has grown about the electoral crisis in the poor Central American country, which struggles with violent drug gangs and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Police sources said at least one man had been shot and killed at a protest in the city of La Ceiba, while about 12 members of the military and police force had been injured in demonstrations that snarled traffic outside Honduras’ main port on Friday and around the country.

At least 10 protesters were injured in the capital of Tegucigalpa, according to the city’s Hospital Escuela.

Military officials called for peaceful protests after police reports of looting in the capital and other cities.

In the country’s second-biggest city of San Pedro Sula, thick plumes of black smoke clouded the air as protesters burned tires and police tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas.

Supporters of Salvador Nasralla, presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, unload a truck with rocks and tires for a barricade settled to block road during a protest caused by the delayed vote count for the presidential election in Tegucigalpa, Honduras December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

More than 100 people were also arrested on suspicion of looting in San Pedro Sula on Friday, a police spokesman said, and local media carried footage of shops being plundered.

People flocked to supermarkets on Friday, stocking up on food and provisions as major roads and supply routes were blocked across the country by angry protesters.

Lines appeared outside gas stations and cash machines. Banks clogged up with people wanting to withdraw or deposit money.

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“I‘m filling the tank with gas in case anything happens, the situation looks bad and there are protests all over the city,” said Carlos Valle, a 61-year-old pensioner, as he joined a long line of vehicles waiting at a fuel pump in Tegucigalpa.

‘SERIOUS DOUBTS’

Both Hernandez and Nasralla, a television game show host allied with leftists, claimed victory after the election, and the challenger has said he will not accept the tribunal’s result because of doubts over the counting process.

Leading a center-left alliance, the 64-year-old Nasralla is one of Honduras’ best-known faces and backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009.

Zelaya weighed into the debate on Thursday in a letter in which he accused the tribunal of “electoral crimes” on behalf of Hernandez, who himself was standing for re-election enabled by a contentious 2015 Supreme Court ruling.

One of the four magistrates on the electoral tribunal on Thursday flagged “serious doubts” about the counting process.

The Organization of American States (OAS) on Wednesday convinced both candidates to vow to respect the final result once disputed votes had been checked.

But a few hours later Nasralla rejected the OAS accord, saying his opponents were trying to rob him. He urged supporters to take to the streets in protest.

Editing by Susan Thomas and Mary Milliken

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