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Ousted Honduras president issues talks ultimatum

TEGUCIGALPA/MANAGUA (Reuters) - Ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya warned on Monday he will deem mediation talks over the country’s political crisis “failed” unless he is reinstated at the next meeting, likely this weekend.

Honduras' interim President Roberto Micheletti (L) listens to his lead negotiator Carlos Lopez during Lopez's swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa July 13, 2009. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

Mediator Costa Rica said on Monday it may call Honduras’ interim government and Zelaya’s negotiators within eight days for fresh talks.

The talks began last week and stopped after two days, making scant progress. Zelaya insists on his reinstatement but Roberto Micheletti, installed as interim president by Honduras’ Congress after the June 28 coup, is adamant that he cannot return to power under any circumstances.

No foreign government has recognized Micheletti as president, and the United States and the Organization of American States have called for Zelaya to be restored to office after the coup in the impoverished Central American country.

“We are giving an ultimatum to the coup regime, that at the latest in the next meeting this week in San Jose, Costa Rica, they should carry out the expressed (OAS and U.N.) resolutions (to reinstate me),” Zelaya told a news conference in Managua.

“If not, then this mediation will be considered to have failed,” he added, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat.

One of Zelaya’s mediators, Milton Jimenez, told the news conference the next round of talks would be held in Costa Rica either on Saturday or on Sunday.

Micheletti, swearing in his lead negotiator as his new interim foreign minister on Monday, said in Tegucigalpa he had been informed that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias would invite his team for talks.

A spokesman for Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, confirmed the mediator intended to issue a fresh invitation to the two sides “within a period of eight days” but could not give a precise date.

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Time appears to be on the interim government’s side, said Mark Ruhl, a Honduras specialist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

“The longer this goes on, the better it is for Micheletti. The downside is if the United States decides to squeeze the government financially. But if you were Micheletti, why would you leave?” he told Reuters.

Honduras, which exports bananas, coffee and textiles, has a long history of coups, returning to democracy only in the 1980s after 20 years of mainly military rule.

Micheletti on Sunday held out the possibility of an amnesty for Zelaya if he returns home quietly and faces justice.

Outside the public prosecutor’s office in Tegucigalpa on Monday, protesters held up banners that read “No amnesty for Mel’s government,” referring to Zelaya by his nickname.


Micheletti reaffirmed that Zelaya would not be allowed to return to power “under any conditions,” arguing he had contravened the constitution by seeking to illegally extend his rule through the lifting of presidential term limits.

Zelaya, now traveling the Americas to shore up his support, ran afoul of his political base and ruling elites in the conservative country by allying himself with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez. Zelaya took office in 2006 and had been due to leave power next year.

Chavez has called the mediation talks in Costa Rica “dead before they started” and Zelaya has vowed to return to Honduras at any moment.

The Honduras crisis has also drawn in U.S. President Barack Obama, who faces a tricky diplomatic test after vowing a fresh start with Latin America, where Washington has in the past been accused of backing coups and dictatorships that served its interests.

The Obama administration was quick to condemn the Honduras coup as illegal.

Micheletti on Sunday blamed Chavez for events unfolding in Honduras and for the death of a protester killed in clashes at Tegucigalpa’s airport a week ago when Honduran troops blocked an attempt by Zelaya to return in a plane provided by the Venezuelan leader.

However, his reference to a possible amnesty for Zelaya was the interim government’s first conciliatory offer to help defuse the worst crisis in Central America since the Cold War.

Micheletti has also said he would be prepared to step down as part of an eventual solution and that elections scheduled for November could be held earlier, but he has emphatically rules out any reinstatement of Zelaya.

“If they work out a deal for Zelaya to come back, it will be just to finish his term. He won’t return in triumph. He would be the ultimate lame duck,” Ruhl said.

Additional reporting by Dan Trotta in Tegucigalpa and John McPhaul in San Jose; writing by Simon Gardner; editing by Pascal Fletcher and John O’Callaghan