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A tense weekend in Honduras

Protests against military coup grow as OAS suspends Honduras

A protester supports ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya on July 4, 2009. The Organization of American States voted to suspend Honduras over the coup which deposed Zelaya on June 28. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Protests against the military coup in this sweltering Central American republic mushroomed over the weekend as the de facto government snubbed international demands to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Amid defiant chants, thousands of Zelaya supporters massed in the capital Saturday and marched to surround the international airport.

The protesters said they would return Sunday to greet the elected president, who promised in a recorded message that he would fly back to his homeland.

“I am prepared to make any effort, any sacrifice to obtain the freedom that our country needs,” Zelaya said in the statement that was played on loudspeakers to cheering crowds. “Either we are free or, if we lack the bravery to defend ourselves, we will be permanent slaves.”

The airport was guarded by thick lines of riot police with tear gas guns, in front of rows of soldiers clutching automatic rifles.

Protest leaders held masked supporters back from confronting the troops. “Do not provoke the soldiers and police. We have no guns or bullet-proof vests. This is a pacifist movement,” shouted Luis Sosa, a leader in the teacher’s trade union as some protesters pushed against the police lines.

Fearing violence, Roman Catholic Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez read out a message on Honduran television urging Zelaya to stay away. “We think that a return to the country at the moment could provoke a bloodbath,” he said.

In Washington, the Organization of American States voted to suspend Honduras, which had ignored a 72-hour deadline to reinstate Zelaya.

Honduras became only the second nation to be suspended from the OAS in the organization's history. In 1962, Cuba was suspended after then-President Fidel Castro refused to hold democratic elections.

However, before the OAS made its latest ruling, Honduras de facto President Roberto Micheletti announced the republic was leaving the group of nations of its own accord. “The OAS is a political organization, not a court, and it can't judge us,” he said in a televised address to the nation.

Micheletti, a 55-year-old career politician, took office hours after Zelaya had been flown out of the nation at gunpoint.