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Social unrest, tensions build days after Honduras coup

By Thelma Mejía | Last updated: Jul 7, 2009 - 4:26:26 PM

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President Manuel Zelaya
TEGUCIGALPA (IPS/GIN) - The provisional government that took power in Honduras a week ago closed the airport to all traffic Monday after clashes between the military and supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya left at least two people dead and 11 injured Sunday.

The deaths occurred when the security forces opened fire on supporters of the ousted president who massed at the airport where Zelaya was kept from landing Sunday by obstacles placed on the runway by the military.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva Monday that he was saddened by the loss of life in Honduras, and urged the authorities to protect civilians, who he said should be allowed to freely express their opinions.

Zelaya is expected to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday in Washington.

After the deposed president announced that he would return to the country Sunday at noon, the interim government that took power during the Jun. 28 coup announced that he would not be allowed to land.

Despite the warning, Zelaya, accompanied by United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto, circled the airport in an attempt to land, before flying on to El Salvador in the small Venezuelan jet in which he flew down from Washington, D.C.

In San Salvador he was met by the members of an international support committee made up of Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and Presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Cristina Fernández of Argentina.

The police blamed Sunday's violence at the Tegucigalpa international airport on "a mob of demonstrators that tried to break through the cordon around the airport," which obliged the security forces to "repel" the attack.

Police spokesman Iván Mejía told IPS that the incident "was so confusing that we have launched an investigation to provide the public shortly with a reliable report."

In statements to Telesur, Zelaya said the military kept him from entering the country, threatening to send up air force planes and placing vehicles on the runway "to keep us from landing."

He said that if he had had a parachute, "I would have jumped out. The people weren't allowed on the airstrip because the idea was that they would remove the obstacles keeping me from landing, but they (the military) did not let them."

Thousands of Zelaya's supporters were surrounding the airport waiting for his plane.

After lamenting the violence, Zelaya accused the military and the de facto government of "repressing the people. Please stop this barbarity, in the name of God I am asking you to stop the repression."

Juan Barahona, the leader of the Bloque Popular, a coalition of trade unions and civil society organizations, said "the deaths of our fellow demonstrators at the hands of the military have made us very sad. No one wanted violence, but we are not going to renounce our right to protest until President Zelaya returns to the country and to power."

"We are going to continue our protest outside of the presidential palace, to demand that (de facto president Roberto) Micheletti step down. That is our aim, because this is a repressive government without grassroots support, which was ushered in by a coup," Barahona told IPS while walking alongside thousands of protesters marching towards the seat of government.

The faces of the protesters reflected sadness and anger over Sunday's events. But "we are not going to back down; we will stay here because this country has to stand up for its rights, and if we allow the coup-mongers to stay, we will lose the democracy that has cost us so much to gain, and that must not happen," Honduran folksinger Karla Lara told IPS.

After Honduras failed to meet a deadline to restore Zelaya to power, the OAS voted over the weekend to suspend the country – the second time the hemispheric body has taken such a measure. (Cuba was expelled in 1962.)

Zelaya, who alienated his own party as well as the wealthier conservative elites after taking a turn to the left, antagonized the other branches of government, including Congress and the Supreme Court, by trying to hold a non-binding referendum on the possibility of constitutional reform.

The legal authorities and parliament declared the informal ballot unconstitutional because referendums cannot be held in an election year, precipitating a series of events that culminated in a coup the day the vote was to take place. The president was seized from his home in a pre-dawn raid by soldiers and put on a plane – still in his pajamas – for Costa Rica.

Zelaya's term was to end in January, and general elections are due in November.

Several leaders of OAS member countries had cautioned Zelaya against returning to Honduras until talks were set up with the de facto government.

Honduran cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez also called on the ousted leader to carefully consider his plans to return, in order to avoid a "bloodbath."

Honduran Defense Minister Adolfo Sevilla said Zelaya was kept from returning because it would have caused "serious problems for the country. The police had orders to arrest him; if he had landed he would now be in prison and the social unrest would have been worse."

The provisional government announced that it was willing to engage in talks with an OAS technical mission to resolve the crisis. "The rank of the interlocutors would gradually increase as the talks advanced," added Martha Lorena Alvarado, who was appointed deputy foreign minister by the provisional government.

Honduras is facing complete international isolation. All European Union and most Latin American ambassadors have been withdrawn, and the neighboring Central American countries – Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – have closed their borders.

Political analyst Juan Ramón Martínez told IPS that what is happening in Honduras is the fault "of the carelessness and irresponsibility of the Honduran political class, where former president Zelaya is just a direct expression of the political crisis."

Left-wing analyst Aníbal Delgado told IPS that "this crisis has got out of our hands; we are being portrayed as a country of brutes, and that is not how things are. I condemn the coup against Zelaya, but it's clear that he broke the law, and we are not making the right interpretation of what happened here."

A week after the coup, the situation in Honduras remains tense, with continued demonstrations by both Zelaya supporters and opponents, a night-time curfew, a paralyzed educational system, and growing polarization reminiscent of the 1980s, a period of repressive violence against social movements and activists.