TEGUCIGALPA – Honduras faced growing pressure to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya on Wednesday after the Organization of American States set a 72-hour deadline to end a crisis triggered by a military coup.
The coup has spiraled into the worst political turmoil in Central America since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, after troops captured Zelaya and whisked him out of the country to Costa Rica in a dawn raid on Sunday.
The ouster of Zelaya -- a timber magnate forced out over his push to extend presidential re-election beyond a single four-year term -- was widely condemned by figures ranging from U.S. President Barack Obama to Zelaya's left-wing allies in Latin America.
Zelaya has vowed to return, accompanied by foreign leaders, to serve out his term ending in 2010, defying a warning from an interim government that he faces arrest if he arrives in Honduras, a major coffee producer.
The OAS resolution, formally agreed in the early morning hours of Wednesday in an emergency session at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., condemned the coup and demanded the immediate, safe, and unconditional return of the president to his constitutional functions.
It declared that no government arising from this unconstitutional interruption will be recognized.
'CRUEL, BLOODY, BACKWARD STEP'
Zelaya, who was at the session, denounced the coup as a cruel, bloody, backward step and offered his heartfelt thanks to the 34-member OAS.
It is the very first time that this organization has spoken so vehemently, with such conviction, condemning an aggressive act, where power has prevailed over reason and where the peace of a society has been broken.
After earlier vowing to return to Honduras on Thursday, Zelaya told reporters that because of the 72-hour time frame in the resolution, he did not now expect to go back before the weekend.
Basically, the decision is to condemn, very clearly, the military coup, OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza earlier told reporters during the meeting of the region's top diplomatic body over the crisis in Honduras.
The resolution instructed Insulza to undertake diplomatic initiatives aimed at restoring democracy and the rule of law and the reinstatement of Zelaya.
Should these prove unsuccessful within 72 hours, the Special General Assembly shall forthwith ... suspend Honduras' membership, it said.
Zelaya had said on Tuesday the Argentine and Ecuadorean presidents and the U.N. General Assembly and OAS chiefs would accompany him back to Honduras.
The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday called on its 192 member states to recognize only Zelaya's government, calling in a resolution for the immediate and unconditional restoration of the legitimate and constitutional government.
But the interim government, established after Zelaya was forced out by troops, said the leftist would be detained if he returned home.
As soon as he enters he will be captured. We have the warrants ready so that he stays in jail in Honduras and is judged according to the country's laws, Enrique Ortez, the interim government's foreign minister, told CNN. He said Zelaya faced charges ranging from violating the constitution to drug trafficking.
Several thousand demonstrators on Tuesday rallied to applaud Zelaya's ouster in the capital Tegucigalpa, after a day of clashes between riot police and the toppled leader's supporters broke out near the presidential palace.
Zelaya is a divisive figure in Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile and banana-exporter of 7 million people, especially after he allied himself with fierce U.S. foe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In a space for possible dialogue, Roberto Micheletti, sworn in as caretaker president by the Honduran Congress soon after the coup, announced he would send a delegation for talks in Washington on Wednesday.
But Insulza said OAS officials had no plans to met with any delegation from the caretaker government, and a senior U.S. official said that no one from the Obama administration would see the representatives.
TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES
The crisis erupted as Honduras struggles with a sharp decline in remittances from Hondurans living in the United States and in vital textile exports. Thousands of jobs have already been lost due to the slowdown in exports.
But coffee producers told Reuters exports had not been affected even after protesters blocked major highways in the interior of the country.
In office since 2006, Zelaya had upset conservative elites with his growing alliance with Chavez, who is championing a revolutionary brand of socialism across Latin America.
Central America's first military coup since the Cold War came after Zelaya angered Congress, the courts and the army with a push for constitutional changes to allow presidential re-election.
Micheletti is backed by the country's business and political elite and has said he plans to stay on until an election in November. He told Reuters on Monday that the coup had saved Honduras from swinging to radical socialism.
In Tegucigalpa, anti-Zelaya protesters waving blue-and-white Honduran flags packed a square to back Micheletti and protest against the return of a leader they say wants to follow the socialist model.
Pro-Zelaya protests several blocks away were calmer than on Monday, when masked demonstrators clashed with security forces by the presidential palace. Troops and police tightened security at the international airport, but traffic was back to normal and many stores and cafes reopened for business, although schools remained shut.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington: Editing by Eric Walsh)