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Coup in Honduras: President tells of his 'brutal kidnapping'

Manuel Zelaya says he was snatched from his bedroom and flown to Costa Rica. The action by Honduras' army follows Zelaya's firing of the top military commander.

June 29, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson and Alex Renderos

MEXICO CITY AND TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — In a throwback to Latin America's unstable past, the Honduran army ousted President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday, sending the leftist leader into exile as a hastily convened Congress replaced him with its speaker, one of Zelaya's fiercest enemies.

The coup was a brazen blow to the region's seemingly solid move to democratic rule, the first such military action in Central America in 16 years. It followed weeks of confrontation between Zelaya and conservative forces in Honduras that came to a head over possible changes to the constitution. Zelaya was seized from his home, still in his pajamas, hours ahead of a nonbinding vote on the reforms, including one that could allow presidential reelection in Honduras.

"This has been a brutal kidnapping," Zelaya said later Sunday in a news conference at the airport in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.

He described how masked soldiers burst into his home before dawn, firing warning shots, shouting and pointing a gun at his chest. He was hauled away to a Honduran air force jet, he said, and flown to Costa Rica.

Zelaya declared that he remained the president of Honduras and vowed to finish out the last six months of his term.

"They have betrayed our country," Zelaya said of the coup plotters. "They have betrayed democracy."

The military action came hours ahead of a referendum in which Zelaya was hoping to gauge public opinion on proposed changes to the constitution, including one that would end presidential term limits.

Army leaders, as well as the Congress, the Supreme Court and election officials had opposed the national vote, calling it illegal. In response, Zelaya fired the nation's top military commander and ignored a Supreme Court order to reinstate him.

Zelaya's foes suspected he was seeking to amend the constitution to stay in power, as other Latin American leaders have done. But Zelaya, prone to fiery rhetoric, has said he is not interested in reelection.

Condemnation of the coup from world leaders -- including President Obama and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- was swift.

Obama said he was "deeply concerned" by the developments and called on "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms [and] the rule of law."

"Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference," he said.

Chavez, a close Zelaya ally, said the coup was "a troglodyte act of the 19th century."

The coup left Honduras, one of the region's poorest countries, awash in tense intrigue. As Zelaya was in Costa Rica lashing out at his foes, an official at the Honduran Congress read out a purported resignation letter from the president. Asked about it in Costa Rica, Zelaya said it was "completely false" and evidence of a "broader conspiracy."

Then the Congress voted to replace Zelaya for actions that it said had "polarized" the nation. The vote was unanimous, but it was unclear how many legislators were in attendance. Some waved copies of the constitution and chanted "Long live Honduras!"

The Congress swore in as new president Roberto Micheletti, who was the head of the law-making body and a bitter foe of Zelaya.

As news of the coup spread, angry Zelaya supporters took to the streets of the capital, Tegucigalpa. "Mel! Mel! Don't go!" they shouted, using the president's nickname. But large protests did not materialize. Troops moved through the city and surrounded the presidential palace and other government buildings. Some radio and television stations were knocked off the air and electricity was cut in some areas.

Honduras' new rulers imposed an overnight curfew late Sunday, forcing citizens to stay indoors after dark. One leftist legislator reportedly was killed as troops tried to arrest him.

Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas, speaking to a television network, called on the public to "fight in the streets for the president to return to Honduras." She said, "We will resist until he returns."

Later, Venezuela claimed that Rodas, along with its ambassador and those of Cuba and Nicaragua, was briefly detained by Honduran troops. The report could not be independently verified.

U.S. officials had been bracing for upheaval in Honduras. On Friday, the State Department expressed concern over "the breakdown in the political dialogue among Honduran politicians" over the vote on constitutional reform.

But within Honduran institutions, there was support for Zelaya's removal. Sunday evening, after being sworn in, Micheletti gave a speech in which he said his rise to power was "completely legal." Zelaya's removal will allow divisive wounds to heal, he said. The army was following orders from the Supreme Court, he added, to cheers from his supporters.

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