Honduras’ de facto government sent troops on Monday to shut down two media stations loyal to ousted President Manuel Zelaya, digging in to resist international pressure for his return to power.
Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup on June 28, but he secretly returned from exile and sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy last Monday, sparking a tense standoff with the de facto civilian government that has promised to arrest him.
Hundreds of soldiers and riot police have surrounded the embassy for the past week, while Zelaya urges his followers to take to the streets to demand he be restored to office in the coffee- and textile-producing country.
The Organization of American States held an extraordinary session in Washington on Monday to discuss the face-off. Honduras denied entry on Sunday to an OAS delegation seeking to set up a high-level visit to broker a negotiated settlement.
At the OAS session in Washington, U.S. ambassador Lewis Anselem criticized both the de facto government and Zelaya for allowing the crisis to escalate.
“The regime should manage security with restraint and caution. President Zelaya should exercise leadership in urging his followers insistently with no mixed message to express their views peacefully,” Anselem said.
He described the government’s actions as “deplorable and foolish” but also called on Zelaya to “desist from making wild allegations and from acting as though he were starring in an old movie.”
The crisis is the first serious test for President Barack Obama in Latin America. He has called for Zelaya’s reinstatement and cut some aid to Honduras but has also been criticized for not doing more to restore democracy in the Central American country.
The raids on Radio Globo and the Cholusat Sur television station — both critical of the de facto government — came early on Monday and followed a decree allowing suspension of some civil rights and media.
Both stations have been taken off the air several times since the June 28 coup that toppled Zelaya, a logging magnate who irked the opposition and business groups by allying himself with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez.
“Troops assaulted the radio, took over the station and took it off the air,” Radio Globo director David Romero said.
Reuters reporters at the site said police and troops had cordoned off the building and the offices of Cholusat Sur, which has been off the air since late Sunday.
The crackdown came hours before Zelaya followers planned a march in Tegucigalpa in what the deposed leader called the “final offensive.” But the capital was generally calm and only around 500 pro-Zelaya protesters squared off with police in a late morning protest.
“I don’t care about all these threats of repression, I’m going to march,” said Carlos Lara, a salesman carrying a poster of the ousted president in his trademark cowboy hat. “Zelaya has to be reinstated.”
The government’s tough stance sent a clear message it would not allow Zelaya’s return to power. But the measures and an ultimatum to Brazil to resolve Zelaya’s status or close its embassy may increase international condemnation of Honduras, which has already faced cuts in some overseas aid and funding.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he would ignore a 10-day deadline set by de facto leader Roberto Micheletti to decide on the fate of Zelaya, who is holed up in the embassy with his family and some supporters.
Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest. His critics say he broke the law by pushing for constitutional reforms they saw as a bid to change presidential term limits and extend his rule. Zelaya denies wanting to stay in power.
The de facto government appears intent on preventing Zelaya from finishing his term, instead insisting that presidential elections in November will resolve the crisis.
(Additional reporting Deborah Charles in Washington; Editing by Kieran Murray)