TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras’ de facto government came under mounting pressure on Tuesday to restore civil liberties and negotiate an end to a three-month crisis triggered when President Manuel Zelaya was toppled in a coup.
Zelaya, a leftist who irked conservative lawmakers and business leaders, was overthrown by the army in June and sent into exile. But he secretly slipped back into the country a week ago and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy.
De facto leader Roberto Micheletti has ordered Zelaya’s arrest, suspended civil liberties, shut two media stations loyal to Zelaya and warned Brazil it has 10 days to decide on the fate of the deposed leader or its embassy will be closed.
The measures have drawn widespread condemnation, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Micheletti on Tuesday to lift the restrictions on civil liberties and stop threatening Brazil’s embassy.
“I am deeply concerned about developments in Honduras. A state of emergency has increased tensions,” he said at a news conference in New York. “I once again appeal for the safety of President Zelaya. I urge all political actors to seriously commit to dialogue and regional mediation efforts.”
Brazil, the regional diplomatic heavyweight, has dismissed Micheletti’s deadline and wants more international pressure on his government to force a solution. The United States has also demanded that Micheletti roll back the emergency measures.
But President Barack Obama’s administration has resisted calls to push harder for Zelaya’s return and a U.S. official said on Tuesday that the government is not talking about imposing new sanctions for now.
Washington has also railed against Zelaya over his role in the crisis, describing his return to Honduras without a negotiated settlement in place as “foolish.”
At home, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is facing growing criticism for allowing Zelaya to turn its embassy into the centerpiece of the Honduran political crisis, prompting Foreign Minister Celso Amorim on Tuesday to ask some of the deposed leader’s supporters to vacate the compound.
Soldiers and riot police have surrounded the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for the past week, while Zelaya tries to rally his followers to the streets to demand he be restored to office.
Armed forces chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who says he helped orchestrate Zelaya’s ouster to “save democracy,” on Tuesday urged dialogue to resolve the crisis.
The de facto government has come under pressure from some political allies in Congress who criticized the crackdown on civil liberties. Micheletti hinted on Monday that he may lift the decree. But he has not yet done so and is refusing to budge on the key sticking point: the restoration of Zelaya.
The deposed leader says any deal must allow him to finish out his presidential term, which ends in January.
“If Honduras does not reverse this coup, every president is going have to watch his back because they too could be ousted every time the economic elite and military feel like it,” Zelaya told Telesur news channel.
Pro-Zelaya protests demanding he be reinstated have dropped off sharply and the capital has returned to calm with a nightly curfew still in place. Cordoned by riot police, less than 100 Zelaya supporters took to the streets on Tuesday.
Micheletti appears to determined to hold out until presidential elections on November 29. But several countries, including the United States, have suggested they might not recognize the vote without a prior agreement.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who sought to broker a deal shortly after the coup, said on Tuesday the candidates in Honduras should step in to negotiate an agreement to ensure the next president doesn’t face international isolation.
“The candidates should be the most interested in resolving this,” Arias told CNN.
Consensus in the Organization of Americans States on how to handle the Honduran crisis broke down on Monday when the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Bahamas and Peru proposed dropping Zelaya’s return as a precondition for elections.
“While all countries publicly demand Zelaya’s return..., differences have emerged on what future position to adopt regarding the elections,” an OAS official said.
The OAS held an extraordinary session in Washington on Monday to discuss the face-off, but OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said a mission would only travel to Honduras when “there are results to be achieved.”
The government has invited the OAS to visit Honduras but only on October 7 at the end of the ultimatum set for Brazil to decide whether to grant asylum to Zelaya or hand him over to Honduran authorities.
Soldiers ousted Zelaya at gunpoint on June 28 and sent him into exile in his pajamas after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest. His critics say he broke the law by pushing for constitutional reforms they say would have lifted presidential term limits. Zelaya denies wanting to stay in power.
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Washington, Anahi Rama and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City, Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray