U.S. insists it wants Zelaya's return to Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The United States insisted on Monday it wants Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya returned to power but gave no commitment to tightening sanctions to force the de facto government to back down.

Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, has complained that Washington was wavering and has not done enough to win his reinstatement.

The U.S. government said it had not changed its position.

“Our policy remains the same, that we want the restoration of democratic order and that includes the return by mutual agreement of the democratically elected president, and that’s President Zelaya,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington.

President Barack Obama has condemned the coup, cut military aid to Honduras and thrown his support behind the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, whose proposals include Zelaya’s reinstatement.

The de facto government has refused to let Zelaya back in and says it will arrest him if he does. The leftist complains that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stopped using the term “coup” to describe his removal from power on June 28.

“The position of Secretary Clinton at the beginning was firm. Now I feel that she’s not really denouncing (it) and she’s not acting firmly against the repression that Honduras is suffering,” Zelaya told reporters over the weekend.

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Asked if the United States would impose new sanctions on the de facto government in Honduras, Kelly said it wanted to give Arias more time to seek a negotiated solution.

“We’re content to let that process play out, we’re not going to put any artificial deadline on that,” he told reporters.

Zelaya, who was ousted as he sought a referendum vote to change the constitution, is in exile in neighboring Nicaragua.

He went to the border and took a few symbolic steps on Honduran soil last Friday, a gesture criticized by Clinton as “reckless.”

No foreign country has recognized the de facto government but interim President Roberto Micheletti has so far refused to back down.

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Seeking to win over his critics and perhaps avert harsher U.S. sanctions, Micheletti wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday arguing Zelaya’s removal was legal because he was seeking to extend presidential term limits.

“The truth is that he was removed by a democratically elected civilian government because the independent judicial and legislative branches of our government found that he had violated our laws and constitution,” said Micheletti, chosen by Congress to lead the country hours after Zelaya was ousted.

Around 2,000 Zelaya supporters gathered on a major exit route from the capital Tegucigalpa to block the road in protest on Monday as Congress was due to examine and debate Arias’ proposals. It was expected to reject the plan because it includes Zelaya’s return as president.

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Zelaya was seized before dawn by soldiers and flown out of the country. The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and Congress backed his removal, appointing Micheletti as president.

Micheletti said he understood criticism of the abrupt way that Zelaya was ousted, saying: “Reasonable people can believe the situation could have been handled differently.”

“But it is also necessary to understand the decision in the context of genuine fear of Mr. Zelaya’s proven willingness to violate the law and to engage in mob-led violence.”

Additional reporting by Marco Aquino, Esteban Israel, Gustavo Palencia and Claudia Parsons in Honduras, Ivan Castro in Nicaragua, Tim Gaynor in Washington; writing by Claudia Parsons; editing by Kieran Murray