Venezuela, Honduras face off

July 22, 2009 12:00 am

, TEGUCIGALPA, Jul 22 – Caracas has angrily rejected what it called an "absurd" demand from Honduras’s de facto government that gave Venezuelan diplomats until Friday to leave the country.

Caracas swiftly rejected an expulsion order that came Tuesday, saying it was issued by leaders of an illegitimate government that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in a coup late last month.

The Central American nation earlier accused President Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela of threatening to use force and meddling in its internal affairs, telling diplomats they had 72 hours to leave the country.

In a statement, Venezuela’s foreign ministry said it would not recognize an "absurd communication" from "the illegitimate authorities" in Honduras.

The toughened Honduran stance came after negotiations with Zelaya hit deadlock and amid international pressure for his reinstatement.

The European Union announced Tuesday that it would limit contacts with the interim government — which backed the army ouster of Zelaya on June 28 — following a new funding freeze.

But Roberto Micheletti, the man who took power after troops expelled Zelaya, has maintained his hard-line position and promised Zelaya will be arrested if he returns to Honduras as he intends to.

Nobel Peace laureate and crisis mediator Oscar Arias on Sunday warned that Honduras was on the brink of civil war and pleaded for crisis talks to resume after a 72-hour break.

Zelaya, who has promised on various occasions to return to Honduras, said Tuesday he would come back with a crowd gathered in neighbouring Central American countries after Thursday, when Arias’ deadline was due to expire.

"I have a large border with El Salvador, I have a border with Guatemala and with Nicaragua. The journey could be by air, land or sea," Zelaya said on Honduran radio from exile in Nicaragua.

Representatives of the interim leadership on Sunday rejected a proposal by Arias that Zelaya return as president in charge of a "reconciliation" government.

The de facto leaders sought to expel Venezuelan embassy staff due to "threats of the use of force (and) meddling in internal affairs," said a statement from the foreign ministry.

All Honduran embassy staff would also leave their diplomatic mission in Caracas, the statement said.

Venezuela, like the rest of the international community, has not recognized the de facto Honduras government, and its charge d’affaires Uriel Vargas said the staff would stay put.

"We do not recognize the government of Roberto Micheletti. It is a de facto government, led by a coup and supported with bayonets," Vargas told reporters in Tegucigalpa.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a key backer to Zelaya, who turned increasingly to the political left after taking power in 2005.

Chavez said Tuesday that Zelaya’s expulsion had also been an attack on Venezuela and regional leftist countries.

Sweden, current holder of the EU presidency, said in a statement that the EU would continue to restrict political contacts with the de facto government "until a peaceful negotiated solution has been found."

The 27-nation bloc on Monday suspended 65.5 million euros in aid to Honduran institutions, although not humanitarian aid.

The US government warned Monday that stalled talks would have real consequences for the impoverished Central American nation, as aid freezes accompanied diplomatic isolation.

Washington has frozen military aid to Tegucigalpa, but it has also warned Zelaya against rash moves that might jeopardize dialogue.

A spectacular and unsuccessful return attempt by Zelaya on July 5 on a plane borrowed from Venezuela’s Chavez sparked clashes between soldiers and his supporters that left at least one dead and dozens injured.

Zelaya said he and his allies were organizing internal resistance in the country to prepare his return. Several hundred of his supporters marched in the Honduran capital Tuesday.

Many Honduran lawmakers, judges and military leaders believe Zelaya triggered the country’s crisis by pushing ahead with a June 28 referendum, without congressional approval, on changing the constitution.


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