TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and de facto rulers in power since a June coup returned to the negotiating table on Thursday, under pressure from U.S. officials to reach an agreement to resolve the country’s political crisis.
A team led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon and Dan Restrepo, Washington’s special assistant for Western Hemisphere affairs, is in Tegucigalpa for a last-ditch effort to broker a resolution to the impasse, after Zelaya pulled his negotiators out of the most recent round of talks last week.
“Time is running out. We only have a month. We need an agreement as soon as possible,” Shannon told a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.
The coffee-producing Central American country has been diplomatically isolated since Zelaya was toppled by soldiers in a dawn coup on June 28 and flown to exile on a military plane.
Attempts at reaching a deal have floundered over the issue of whether Zelaya can be returned to power before a presidential election scheduled for November 29.
The high-level U.S. team met with de facto leader Roberto Micheletti and Zelaya, who has been holed up at the Brazilian Embassy since sneaking back in to the country last month.
Shannon called the situation “difficult” but, in a sign the United States is stepping up its involvement, he sat in on Thursday’s talks and said his delegation would stay on an extra day to help Hondurans broker a deal.
As negotiators met behind closed doors, Micheletti repeated his hard-line stance against Zelaya’s return, telling reporters: “I don’t think reinstatement is a possibility.”
POLICE BREAK UP PROTEST
Police in riot gear and firing tear gas broke up a march by hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters near the hotel where the talks were underway, Reuters witnesses said. Television images showed police hitting one man with a stick and the Red Cross said five demonstrators were injured, but none seriously.
Human rights groups have documented major abuses by the de facto government and say free and fair elections will be impossible after Micheletti curbed civil liberties and temporarily shut opposition news outlets last month.
U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking better relations with Latin America, has been criticized for not doing enough to pressure Micheletti while allowing Latin American governments and the Organization of American States take the lead.
Zelaya pulled out of talks after weeks of negotiations failed to resolve the issue of whether or not he can be reinstated. The move prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to telephone both sides and dispatch the U.S. delegation.
The two opposing sides agreed to return to negotiations but it was not clear if new proposals would be on the table.
Micheletti’s de facto government, which is not recognized internationally, lodged legal proceedings against Brazil at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Wednesday for interfering in Honduras’ internal affairs by sheltering Zelaya.
It wants the court to order Brazil to stop providing refuge to Zelaya, but Brazil quickly disputed the move.
“The de facto Honduran government has no legitimacy to lodge a law suit in the International Court of Justice,” said a spokesman for Brazil’s foreign ministry.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles in Washington, Raymond Colitt in Brasilia, Javier Lopez de Lerida and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Chris Wilson
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