July 8, 2009 / 1:22 AM / 10 years ago

Honduras rivals head for talks, reconciliation hard

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The two rivals in Honduras’ political crisis prepared on Wednesday to open talks on possible solutions to last month’s coup, but a quick breakthrough looked unlikely.

A supporter of Honduras' ousted president Manuel Zelaya brandishes a machete as a vehicle burns in the back during a road blockade on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was flying to Costa Rica for a meeting on Thursday under Costa Rican mediation with the leaders of the June 28 coup.

Zelaya, boosted by widespread international condemnation of his ouster, insists only his immediate return to office can restore order and prevent further unrest in his coffee and textile exporting country, one of the poorest in the Americas.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, facing a major test of its promise to improve ties with Latin America, has condemned the coup and supported Zelaya despite expressing misgivings about his policies and political allegiances.

But the Obama administration faced criticism at home from some Republican senators who questioned what they called

“one-sided support” for Zelaya.

The interim government installed by Honduras’ Congress after the coup says Zelaya’s removal was a lawful defense of the constitution. It says the deposed president, who had angered the country’s ruling elite with a shift to the left, was acting unlawfully by seeking to remove limits on presidential terms.

Heading the caretaker government, Roberto Micheletti has agreed to Thursday’s talks but says he will not negotiate Zelaya’s return to power, posing a challenge to mediator President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica.

“This isn’t a situation that can be resolved in a blink of an eye,” Carlos Lopez, designated by Micheletti as envoy to the United Nations, said in Tegucigalpa. He repeated the coup leaders’ assertion that Zelaya would face judicial charges if he returned.

Zelaya, who calls Micheletti’s administration “coup plotters” and says he is guilty of treason, also expressed reservations about meeting with those behind his ouster. Zelaya was whisked from his house by soldiers at gunpoint and flown into exile.

“It’s difficult to have dealings with thugs to try to find solutions, but we mustn’t lose hope,” he said in an interview with Chilean television.

REGIONAL TENSIONS

The United States, which appears to have persuaded Zelaya to give the talks a chance and refrain from trying to return to power by force, has thrown its weight behind Arias’ mediation, also backed by the Organization of American States.

“We now have a dialogue in place that has a real promise of resolving this,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.

The OAS on Saturday suspended Honduras after the caretaker government refused to reinstate Zelaya. Zelaya tried to force the issue by trying to fly home on Sunday, but authorities in Honduras stopped his plane from landing.

At least one person was killed on Sunday in clashes between Honduran troops and pro-Zelaya protestors, and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said it had evidence suggesting the soldiers may have used excessive force by opening fire on unarmed demonstrators. It called for an independent investigation.

The Honduran coup has stoked up tensions in Central America, where Arias won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping to end inter-locking civil wars and insurgencies during the Cold War.

Lopez gave an apparent warning to Zelaya’s leftist allies, which include firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba, against trying to restore him to office by force.

“We hope there’s not going to be interference by outside countries,” he said.

Opponents of Zelaya say the logging magnate, who took office in 2006 and was due to leave power in 2010, had increasingly allied himself with Chavez and they said his bid to end presidential term limits was influenced by Venezuela’s leader, a fierce critic of Washington.

Slideshow (14 Images)

Zelaya told Chilean television he had never proposed his own re-election, and said he could be ready to hold early elections. The country is due to hold elections in November.

Some analysts were skeptical about the chances for success at the talks. “It is difficult to see how this mediation will succeed, so long as the coup government knows that they can stall out the rest of Zelaya’s term,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the U.S.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank.

Seventeen Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Senate sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the Obama administration to reassess its position toward the coup, and urging it not to cut assistance to Honduras, which U.S. officials say is under review.

Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in Tegucigalpa, Antonio de la Jara in Santiago de Chile, Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Frances Kerry

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