TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The United States Monday condemned violence against protesters in Honduras and called for President Manuel Zelaya’s reinstatement as the Central American country faced growing isolation over last week’s coup.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to meet Zelaya in Washington Tuesday, a U.S. official said, in a sign the Obama administration wants to provide visible support after already condemning his ouster.
Honduras’ interim authorities foiled Zelaya’s attempt to force the issue and return home Sunday, preventing his small private jet from landing in the capital. Zelaya ended up diverting the plane to neighbouring El Salvador.
At least one person was killed and two people were badly wounded in clashes with troops after thousands of pro-Zelaya demonstrators marched to meet him at the airport in Tegucigalpa and broke through fencing near the runaway.
It was the first death in protests since the June 28 coup in the coffee and textile exporting country, the third poorest in the Americas after Haiti and Nicaragua.
“We deplore the use of force against demonstrators in Tegucigalpa in recent days and once again call upon the de facto regime and all actors in Honduras to refrain from all acts of violence,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly in Washington.
Several thousand pro-Zelaya demonstrators took to the streets again Monday, marching to the presidential palace and shouting “murderers” at soldiers.
The protest ended peacefully. A night-time curfew in still in place.
Zelaya, whose term was due to end in 2010, was flown into exile by the military in Central America’s first coup since the Cold War. His ouster has sparked wide international condemnation, especially among Zelaya’s leftist Latin American allies, and is testing regional diplomacy.
The United States urged a “peaceful, constitutional and lasting solution to the serious divisions in that country through dialogue,” Kelly said.
Asked what that meant, he said: “In the most immediate instance it means the return of the democratically elected president to Tegucigalpa.”
Honduras’ interim government has insisted Zelaya’s removal was a constitutional transition that, while carried out by the army, was supported by the country’s Supreme Court.
The government, which was installed by Congress soon after the coup, argues that Zelaya had illegally tried to organise a vote on changing presidential term limits.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon urged the Organisation of American States Monday to take the lead role in restoring constitutional order in Honduras.
Saturday, the OAS took the rare step of suspending Honduras — only the second country after Cuba to be barred — for its refusal to reinstate Zelaya.
Trying to make contacts, a commission of Honduran private sector representatives flew to Washington Monday to seek guarantees on trade and make the case for the interim government, which cannot officially hold talks with the U.S. administration.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, current head of the South American Unasur group, planned to call other regional leaders Monday in an effort to resolve the crisis, the country’s foreign minister said.
The caretaker government of Roberto Micheletti has told the OAS it wants to start talks to solve the crisis, a senior U.S. official said Sunday. He called the situation in Honduras “very fluid and challenging.”
But Micheletti’s government has maintained its position that talks cannot include Zelaya’s restoration. The government plans to stay on until elections previously scheduled for November but says it would consider an early vote.
Zelaya, a businessman who edged to the left after he took office in 2006, upset the traditional ruling elites, including members of his own Liberal Party, by seeking changes to presidential term limits and establishing closer ties with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez.
Washington has held off on issuing a legal determination of the ouster as a coup — a definition that would force a cutoff of U.S. aid to the country.
“We are still in the ongoing process of determining whether the law applies but we’re not inclined to make a statutory decision while diplomatic initiatives are ongoing,” Kelly said.
The State Department had requested $68.2 million (41.8 million pounds) in aid for Honduras for the fiscal year 2010, above the $43.2 million in the current year, covering development aid, funds for U.S. arms as well as military training and counter narcotics aid.
The OAS suspension will also complicate Honduras’ access to multilateral loans. The Inter-American Development Bank — one of the region’s top multilateral lenders — has already put a hold on all new loans to Honduras after the military coup.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Sean Mattson in Tegucigalpa; by Conrado Hornos in Montevideo, Editing by John O'Callaghan