Honduras de facto leader meets with US lawmakers

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Honduran de facto President Roberto Micheletti met yesterday with a delegation of US lawmakers who have called on the Obama administration to stop supporting the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Zelaya, who upset Honduran elites with his ties to Venezuela’s socialist president and fierce US critic Hugo Chavez, was toppled by a coup in June and last week sneaked back into Honduras to take refuge in the Brazilian Embassy.

The Honduran standoff is President Barack Obama’s first key test in Latin America after he promised a new engagement with a region that often had testy ties with Washington when George W. Bush was in office.

US officials have pressed for Zelaya’s restoration but criticized his surprise return. They have pressured Micheletti supporters by cutting aid and revoking US visas but Obama has shied away from tougher measures such as trade sanctions.

US Senator Jim DeMint and a group of US congressmen met Micheletti after the Republican lawmaker criticized the US State Department for backing Zelaya’s reinstatement and said it tried to block his visit to a de facto government Washington does not recognize.

“President Obama and Democrats’ blind support for this would-be dictator and friend of Hugo Chavez will prevent members of Congress from learning the truth first hand,” DeMint, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on his Web site.

Micheletti has come under mounting international pressure for imposing an emergency decree to curb pro-Zelaya protests around the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, where the leftist has been holed up with family and followers for 11 days.

The decree suspended some civil liberties and closed two media stations loyal to the deposed leader, triggering criticism from the US government and the United Nations.

Washington, the United Nations and even some of his local backers have called on Micheletti to lift the decree but the de facto leader has resisted as the standoff drags closer to November elections he says will resolve the crisis.

But he has backed off a threat to shut down the Brazilian Embassy next week if Zelaya is not given asylum or handed over to face charges of treason.

“He guaranteed there is no ultimatum, it has been lifted and they can stay until a solution is found,” said Bruno Araujo, a Brazilian lawmaker who met with Micheletti.

Soldiers ousted Zelaya on June 28 and sent him into exile after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest. Critics say he illegally sought to amend the constitution to lift term limits. Zelaya denies wanting to stay in power.

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