MEXICO CITY AND TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — Ramping up pressure on Honduras' interim rulers, the Organization of American States threatened Wednesday to suspend the nation's membership if ousted President Manuel Zelaya was not returned to power within 72 hours.
The move prompted Zelaya to announce he would delay plans to return to Honduras until the weekend. Zelaya, deposed by the Honduran army Sunday in a coup that has drawn broad international condemnation, had said earlier he would go back today, accompanied by other regional leaders.
The OAS resolution, issued in the early morning hours after an emergency session in Washington, condemned the coup and said the group would only recognize Zelaya and his representatives as the legitimate government of Honduras.
Citing Article 20 of its Inter-American Democratic Charter, the organization said it "reaffirms that President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales is the constitutional president of Honduras and demands the immediate, safe and unconditional return of the president to his constitutional functions."
The OAS ultimatum gave 72 hours for diplomatic efforts by the hemispheric group and regional officials "to restore democracy and the rule of law" in Honduras. It was not immediately clear who would take part in such efforts or how a breakthrough could be achieved.
The move came after the United Nations General Assembly called for Zelaya to be reinstated without conditions and Central American neighbors suspended trade with Honduras.
President Obama has labeled the coup "not legal" and said Zelaya remained president, but the United States has not withdrawn its ambassador in Honduras nor cut off aid to the impoverished nation.
U.S. officials said they would not take action on a threatened aid cutoff until after the OAS secretary-general reported to the organization on his attempt to negotiate a settlement. The United States expects Zelaya to agree to change his approach enough for him to work with the political opposition that threw him out, a senior Obama administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
Members of the de facto government, appointed after soldiers arrested Zelaya and sent him into exile in Costa Rica, culminating months of political friction, have refused to give way. The new leaders have threatened to arrest Zelaya as soon as he sets foot in Honduras.
Roberto Micheletti, a former head of Congress chosen as the new president, said that Zelaya "broke laws" and faced prosecution. The country's attorney general, Luis Alberto Rubi, said Tuesday that warrants had been issued accusing Zelaya of 18 crimes, including treason and abuse of authority.
Zelaya traveled to Panama on Wednesday to attend the inauguration of President Ricardo Martinelli.
The dueling claims to power have left Honduran society divided. Demonstrators on both sides have held competing gatherings this week in the nation's capital, Tegucigalpa, and the city of San Pedro Sula, though without any widespread violence.
In Tegucigalpa on Wednesday, about 1,000 pro-Zelaya demonstrators marched along with a caravan of horn-blowing taxis to the OAS offices to celebrate the resolution. An air force helicopter followed the group overhead.
Honduran television reported late Tuesday that a government bomb squad detonated an explosive device that had been hurled at the Supreme Court, which is under the army's control.
Zelaya's backers decry what they describe as thuggish tactics reminiscent of Latin America's troubled past, whereas detractors accuse him as having fallen under the spell of leftists in the region, chiefly Venezuela's firebrand president, Hugo Chavez.
Micheletti has justified the ouster as legal, saying Zelaya violated the law by moving forward with plans for a referendum aimed at changing the constitution to allow his own reelection. The nonbinding vote, scheduled for Sunday but scrapped after Zelaya's arrest, was deemed unlawful by elections officials and met opposition from the army, Congress and Supreme Court.
The showdown has presented Obama with his first real crisis in a region that was pushed into the background during the Bush administration by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. officials reportedly sought in recent days to dissuade the Honduran military from acting but failed to prevent the coup.
Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.