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Protests grow in favour of Zelaya

Tension has been growing in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa as protests grow in support of ousted President Manuel Zelaya. He has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy, surrounded by troops, since Monday.


AFP - Protests mounted here Saturday, as thousands of supporters of deposed President Manuel Zelaya took to the streets 90 days after his ouster and hopes faded for a way out of a tense standoff in the nation's capital.

After thousands marched to the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya has been holed up since Monday, hundreds more took part in a vehicle protest, hanging out car windows, honking horns and waving Honduran flags as they drove through a main axis of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

A top diplomat leaving the Brazilian embassy denounced the state of "siege," with troops lined up around the compound.

"It's the only place in the world where there's an embassy under siege," said Francisco Catunda, the Brazilian charge d'affaires, as he left the building for the first time since Zelaya appeared there at the start of the week.

"You can't imagine how many papers, checks and negotiations I had to undergo so that I, the charge d'affaires of Brazil, could leave," Catunda told reporters indignantly.

Most people inside the embassy were in good health, Catunda said, adding that one Brazilian diplomat told him he had smelled gas the previous day, after Zelaya accused the army of trying to poison him and some 60 people still inside the compound by pumping noxious gases into the building -- a charge roundly denied by Honduran officials.

The UN Security Council on Friday warned the de facto authorities not to harass the embassy.

Demonstrators have come daily to the embassy compound, which is surrounded by anti-riot police and soldiers, to show their support for the embattled head of state.

"Thanks, Brazil, for protecting Mel from this vile regime," one banner read, using the popular nickname given to Zelaya.

Many said that Zelaya's surprise return to the country on Monday -- nearly three months after he was ousted in a dispute over his plans to change the constitution -- had strengthened his support.

"The coup leaders have more pressure to negotiate" now, union leader Juan Barahona told AFP.

European Union countries however decided to send back their envoys who were withdrawn after the coup, the Swedish EU presidency said Saturday.

It added that the return of the ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy and Spain would in no way imply recognition of the country's de facto government.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Friday that Zelaya "could stay as long as necessary for his safety" in the Brazilian embassy.

The de facto leaders have insisted the compound will not be taken by force and denied they were responsible for initial power and water cuts.

A daytime curfew was lifted Thursday and airports reopened, allowing businesses to resume and providing relief to an increasingly frustrated public. A nighttime curfew remained in place.

Initial hopes after tentative offers for dialogue by both Zelaya and de facto leader Roberto Micheletti have quickly faded, and on Saturday, at a meeting of African and South American leaders taking place on Venezuela's Isla Margarita, Brazil's president cautioned against "backsliding" on democracy in Honduras and throughout Latin America.

"We fought hard to sweep military dictatorships into the trash can of history, we can not allow these kind of setbacks in our continent," he said.

"This is an important issue for us South Americans at the dawn of a century shaped by democracy and multilateralism," he told the gathering of leaders from 60 Latin American and African nations.

The United Nations on Wednesday froze its technical support for presidential polls scheduled for November, which appeared increasingly challenging to organize. Zelaya's term ends in January.

A police spokesman told AFP Wednesday that two people had been killed in pro-Zelaya protests since the start of the week, and rights groups have voiced concern about clampdowns on demonstrators and local media.

Hitmen on a motorcycle shot dead a mayoral candidate from a small centrist party in the Honduran capital Saturday, a police spokesman told AFP. The police ruled out a link with the country's political unrest.

Zelaya, a rancher who veered to the left after his election and alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was ousted from power in a military-backed coup in June.

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