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Rival offers Zelaya talks

TEGUCIGALPA,Sept, 23 – Honduras’ de facto leader offered for the first time to hold direct talks with ousted President Manuel Zelaya to resolve a political crisis even as soldiers laid siege to the embassy where he took refuge.

But Roberto Micheletti, president of the interim government that took power after a June 28 coup, said Tuesday Zelaya must first accept elections to choose a new president on November 29.

"I am ready to talk with Mr Zelaya, as long as he explicitly recognizes the presidential elections," Micheletti said in a statement read late Tuesday at a news conference by the de facto government’s foreign minister Carlos Lopez.

The offer came at the end of a day of rising tensions in which soldiers fired tear gas to disperse some 4,000 Zelaya supporters who gathered at the Brazilian embassy in support of the ousted president and in defiance of a curfew.

The de facto government responded to the challenge by cutting electricity, water and telephone lines to the Brazilian embassy in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Airports were also closed and a curfew extended until early Wednesday evening, as human rights organizations accused the de facto government of carrying out mass arrests, injuring and even killing Zelaya supporters.

The leader of an indigenous rights organization, speaking to Cuban television by telephone, described violence at the embassy compound.

"These fascists have dared to surround the embassy of Brazil, have beaten people, they have killed two comrades and tortured people," said Bertha Caceres of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.

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Tirza Flores, a member of the group Judges for Democracy, described a "situation of total chaos" and said police were making "mass arrests."

Four protesters were also said to have been shot and wounded in the skirmishes around the embassy.

The crisis prompted a flurry of statements from regional leaders, with Ecuador calling on the Micheletti government to ensure "the life and physical well-being of of President Zelaya."

The Rio Group, a regional organization of Latin American and Caribbean states, also issued a statement calling on the de facto government to cease its "acts of repression" and to ensure the safety of Zelaya and embassy officials.

The deposed leader, speaking to Venezuelan television station Telesur, accused the Micheletti government of planning to "seize the embassy" to capture him.

Micheletti denied the claims, and accused Zelaya of "lying to the whole world and particularly Hondurans," but his government also ruled out a raid on the embassy.

"We have not considered, nor will there be, a raid on the embassy to capture Mr Manuel Zelaya," said Martha Lorena Alvarado, a senior aide for the Micheletti government.

Meanwhile, supplies for an estimated 300 Brazilian diplomats, Zelaya supporters and journalists trapped inside were running low.

"We have no food here. There are about 10 small children in here who have had nothing to eat. We’re in a really bad way," one Zelaya supporter said.

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The United States pledged to do what it could to help via its embassy in Tegucigalpa.

"It’s a very sensitive situation there on the ground, and I don’t want to get into the details of what kind of assistance we’re discussing," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told journalists in Washington.

Zelaya made his surprise return to Honduras on Monday, three months after being ousted in a military-backed coup, prompting the tense stand-off that has coincided with world leaders gathering for the UN General Assembly.

In New York, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva described the country as "in a state of siege" and pledged his support to Zelaya, defying calls to give him up.

Lula said he had spoken to Zelaya by telephone on Monday and urged him to "be very careful not to allow any pretext for the coup plotters to resort to violence."

Zelaya told AFP Tuesday that he had spoken with police and soldiers the day before to "seek a way out of the crisis," accusing his rivals of trying to further isolate Honduras and preventing access to international negotiators.

"Fighting for democracy shouldn’t be a crime. I think we have to seek to come together directly in order to achieve peace," he told an AFP reporter inside the embassy.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Zelaya’s return could signal an opportune time "to restore him to his position under appropriate circumstances."

Democratically elected, Zelaya veered to the left after he took office and alienated some by aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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Micheletti has said he will step aside after presidential elections on November 29. Zelaya is constitutionally barred from standing for a second term.

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