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Honduras crisis dominates South American summit

ASUNCION (Reuters) - The political crisis in Honduras took center stage at a South American presidential summit on Friday, with regional leaders calling for the unconditional return of deposed President Manuel Zelaya.

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With Zelaya headed toward Honduras against the warnings of the de facto government there, South American presidents pushed aside debate about the global economic downturn and regional trade to make a joint demand for the immediate restoration of democracy in the Central American country.

“This is a step backward that our region cannot tolerate,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in a speech at the summit of the Mercosur trade bloc in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. “We cannot compromise.”

The summit, which brought together the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, finished with a harsh statement condemning the June 28 coup in Honduras that ousted the left-leaning Zelaya from power.

The statement, which referred to the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti as “illegitimate,” said the countries of South America would push the Organization of American States to adopt a resolution banning the return of Honduras to the OAS unless Zelaya is reinstated as president.

Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez, whose close ties with Zelaya irked the conservative opposition in Honduras, was also invited to the summit in Paraguay but sent representatives instead.

There was heated debate about the steps that each country could take to put pressure on the interim administration of Micheletti. Venezuelan officials urged the region’s governments to deny visas to the de facto Honduran rulers and adopt economic sanctions against them.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez proposed that the governments of South America refuse to recognize any steps taken by the Micheletti government, including elections, a view that was backed by the summit’s host, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.

“Honduras is a bleeding wound in democracy in the region,” Lugo said. “We’re not going to accept any elections called by this regime.”

Though U.S. President Barack Obama has condemned the coup, Bolivian President Evo Morales -- who, like Chavez, is famous for his anti-U.S. rhetoric -- used the Mercosur summit to blame Washington for the crisis in Honduras.

“The origin of this coup is the U.S. military presence in Honduras, and we have proof,” Morales said without elaborating.

The debate about Honduras overshadowed long-running feuds over regional trade and investment that have plagued Mercosur for years, prompting leading Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color to label the trade bloc as “useless” in a front-page editorial on Friday.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham