Army overthrows Honduras president in vote dispute

Sun Jun 28, 2009 3:20pm EDT
 
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By Mica Rosenberg

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Honduran army ousted and exiled leftist President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday in Central America's first military coup since the Cold War, triggered by his bid to make it legal to seek another term in office.

President Barack Obama and the European Union expressed deep concern after troops came for Zelaya, an ally of socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, around dawn and took him away from his residence. He was whisked away to Costa Rica.

Zelaya, who took office in 2006 and is limited by the constitution to a four-year term that ends in early 2010, had angered the army, courts and Congress by pushing for an unofficial public vote on Sunday to gauge support for his plan to hold a November referendum on allowing presidential re-election.

Speaking on Venezuelan state television, Chavez -- who has long championed the left in Latin America -- said he had put his troops on alert over the Honduran coup and would do everything necessary to abort the coup against his close ally.

He said that if the Venezuela ambassador was killed, or troops entered the Venezuela embassy, "that military junta would be entering a defacto state of war, we would have to act militarily." He said, "I have put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert."

Chavez, who has in the past threatened military action in the region but never followed through, said that if a new government is sworn in after the coup it would be defeated.

A military plane flew Zelaya to Costa Rica and CNN's Spanish-language channel said he had asked for asylum there.

Some 2,000 pro-government protesters, some armed with shovels and metal poles, burned tires in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and two fighter jets screamed through the sky over the city.

Democracy has taken root in Central America in recent decades after years of dictatorships and war, but crime, corruption and poverty are still major problems. Zelaya said the coup smacked of an earlier era.

"If holding a poll provokes a coup, the abduction of the president and expulsion from his country, then what kind of democracy are we living in?" Zelaya said in Costa Rica.

Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile and banana exporter with a population of 7 million, had been politically stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s. But Zelaya has moved the country further left since taking power. His push to change the constitution drove a rift between his office and the nation's other institutions.

A former businessman who sports a cowboy hat and thick mustache, Zelaya fired military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez last week for refusing to help him run Sunday's unofficial survey on extending the four-year term limit on Honduran presidents.

Zelaya, 56, told Venezuela-based Telesur television station that he was "kidnapped" by soldiers and called on Hondurans to peacefully resist the coup.

OBAMA CALLS FOR CALM

The EU condemned the coup and Obama called for calm.  Continued...

 
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