AFP - The increasingly defiant de facto leaders in Honduras Tuesday gave 72 hours to staff from Venezuela's embassy to leave, accusing them of threatening to use force and meddling in internal affairs.
Venezuelan diplomats swiftly rejected the expulsion order, saying it was issued by leaders of an illegitimate government that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in a coup late last month.
The toughened stance came after negotiations with Zelaya hit deadlock and amid growing international pressure for his reinstatement.
The European Union announced Tuesday that it would limit contacts with the interim government -- which backed the army ouster of Zelaya on June 28 -- and was considering further measures, following a new funding freeze.
Despite more isolation, Roberto Micheletti, the man who took power after troops expelled Zelaya, has maintained his hardline position and promised Zelaya will be arrested if he returns to Honduras as he intends to.
Representatives of the interim leadership on Sunday rejected a proposal by crisis mediator and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that Zelaya return as president in charge of a "reconciliation" government.
The de facto leaders decided to expel Venezuelan embassy staff due to "threats of the use of force (and) meddling in internal affairs," said a statement from the foreign ministry.
They had informed the embassy in a letter that staff had 72 hours to leave, and all Honduran embassy staff would also leave their diplomatic mission in Caracas, the statement said.
Venezuela, like the rest of the international community, has not recognized the de facto Honduras government, and charge d'affaires Uriel Vargas said the staff would stay put.
"We do not recognize the government of Roberto Micheltti. It is a de facto government, led by a coup and supported with bayonets," Vargas told reporters at Venezuela's embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a key backer to Zelaya, who turned increasingly to the political left after taking power in 2005.
Nobel Peace laureate Arias on Sunday warned that Honduras was on the brink of civil war and pleaded for crisis talks to resume after a 72-hour break.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt underlined Tuesday that the mediation by Arias was the only option at the moment.
"We have to support him," Bildt told members of the European parliament in Brussels. "All other alternatives are pretty bad."
Sweden, current holder of the EU presidency, said in a statement that the EU would continue to restrict political contacts with the de facto government "until a peaceful negotiated solution has been found."
The 27-nation bloc on Monday suspended 65.5 million euros in aid to Honduran institutions, although not humanitarian aid.
The US government warned Monday that stalled talks would have real consequences for the impoverished Central American nation, as aid freezes accompany diplomatic isolation.
Washington has frozen military aid to Tegucigalpa, but it has also warned Zelaya against rash moves that might jeopardize dialogue.
A spectacular and unsuccessful return attempt by Zelaya on July 5 on a plane borrowed from Venezuela's Chavez sparked clashes between soldiers and his supporters that left at least one dead and dozens injured.
Zelaya called on the international community to get even tougher with the de facto regime in a newspaper interview published Tuesday.
"You need to cancel bank accounts, suspend visas and trips, ban travel by any member of the regime that came out of the coup d'etat," he told the Spanish daily El Mundo.
Zelaya said he and his supporters were organising internal resistance in the country to prepare his return, expected at the end of the week.
The interim leaders have threatened to crack down on any protesters who provoke trouble.
Many Honduran lawmakers, judges and military leaders believe Zelaya triggered the country's crisis by pushing ahead with a June 28 referendum, without congressional approval, on changing the constitution.
That tough line continued late Monday when the country's Supreme Court issued a declaration rejecting all "interference or intimidation."