TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran army ousted and exiled leftist President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday in Central America’s first military coup since the Cold War, triggered by his bid to make it legal to seek another term in office.
President Barack Obama and the European Union expressed deep concern after troops came for Zelaya, an ally of socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, around dawn and took him away from his residence. He was whisked away to Costa Rica.
Zelaya, who took office in 2006 and is limited by the constitution to a four-year term that ends in early 2010, had angered the army, courts and Congress by pushing for an unofficial public vote on Sunday to gauge support for his plan to hold a November referendum on allowing presidential re-election.
Speaking on Venezuelan state television, Chavez — who has long championed the left in Latin America — said he had put his troops on alert over the Honduran coup and would do everything necessary to abort the coup against his close ally.
He said that if the Venezuela ambassador was killed, or troops entered the Venezuela embassy, “that military junta would be entering a defacto state of war, we would have to act militarily.” He said, “I have put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert.”
Chavez, who has in the past threatened military action in the region but never followed through, said that if a new government is sworn in after the coup it would be defeated.
A military plane flew Zelaya to Costa Rica and CNN’s Spanish-language channel said he had asked for asylum there.
Some 2,000 pro-government protesters, some armed with shovels and metal poles, burned tires in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and two fighter jets screamed through the sky over the city.
Democracy has taken root in Central America in recent decades after years of dictatorships and war, but crime, corruption and poverty are still major problems. Zelaya said the coup smacked of an earlier era.
“If holding a poll provokes a coup, the abduction of the president and expulsion from his country, then what kind of democracy are we living in?” Zelaya said in Costa Rica.
Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile and banana exporter with a population of 7 million, had been politically stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s. But Zelaya has moved the country further left since taking power. His push to change the constitution drove a rift between his office and the nation’s other institutions.
A former businessman who sports a cowboy hat and thick mustache, Zelaya fired military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez last week for refusing to help him run Sunday’s unofficial survey on extending the four-year term limit on Honduran presidents.
Zelaya, 56, told Venezuela-based Telesur television station that he was “kidnapped” by soldiers and called on Hondurans to peacefully resist the coup.
The EU condemned the coup and Obama called for calm.
“Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference,” Obama said. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged all parties in Honduras to respect the constitution and the rule of law.
Honduras was a staunch U.S. ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight left-wing guerrillas.
The United States still has 600 troops stationed at Soto Cano Air Base, a Honduran military installation that is also the headquarters for a regional U.S. joint task force that conducts humanitarian, drug and disaster relief operations.
“The commanders at Soto Cano are taking appropriate force protection measures,” Pentagon spokesman David Oten said.
Sunday’s coup was the first successful military ouster of a president in Central America since the Cold War era.
An opposition deputy said Congress would chose Roberto Micheletti, the head of Congress, as acting president later on Sunday, and Honduras’ top electoral court said a presidential election would be held as planned on November 29.
The Supreme Court, which last week came out against Zelaya and ordered him to reinstate fired military chief Vasquez, said on Sunday it had told the army to remove the president.
“It acted to defend the rule of law,” the court said in a statement read on Honduran radio.
The global economic crisis has curbed growth in Honduras, which is heavily dependent on remittances from Honduran workers abroad. Recent opinion polls indicate public support for Zelaya has fallen as low as 30 percent.
Honduras is a major drug trafficking transit point.
It is also a big coffee producer but there was no immediate sign the unrest would affect production.
Addition reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, David Morgan and Ross Colvin in Washington, and Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas, Writing by Alistair Bell and Catherine Bremer, Editing by Frances Kerry