TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Thousands of Hondurans demonstrated Wednesday for the return of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, who vowed to fly home this weekend despite a warrant for his arrest. Thousands more rallied in favour of the military-backed government.
Newly appointed President Roberto Micheletti said it would take a foreign invasion put Zelaya back in power, and said he was sending a delegation to Washington in an attempt to reverse the country's increasing international isolation, though his own foreign minister later denied that.
France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Colombia joined other nations Wednesday in recalling their ambassadors. The Pentagon suspended joint U.S.-Honduran military operations and the World Bank said it was freezing loans. Honduras' three neighbours have suspended cross-border trade.
Soldiers stormed Zelaya's residence and flew him into exile Sunday after he insisted on trying to hold a referendum asking Hondurans if they want to change the constitution. The Supreme Court, Congress and the military all deemed his planned ballot illegal. Zelaya backed down Tuesday, saying he will no longer push for constitutional changes.
Both sides of the dispute mobilized supporters in the streets Wednesday, with a pro-Zelaya march in the capital and pro-Micheletti demonstrations in other cities. No violence was reported.
"We want Mel!" 30-year-old farm hand Javier Santos yelled over a megaphone, using Zelaya's nickname, as marchers walked toward the local offices of the Organization of American States. The largest pro-Micheletti rally was in Choluteca, 75 miles (120 kilometres) south of the capital, where demonstrators wore the blue and white of the Honduran flag.
No violence was reported, though businesses quickly lowered their shutters as marchers approached.
The Organization of American States gave Micheletti until Saturday to step aside before Honduras is suspended from the group, an ultimatim Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said was meant "to show clearly that military coups will not be accepted. We thought we were in an era when military coups were no longer possible in this hemisphere."
Zelaya delayed plans to return Thursday to let that deadline play out.
"I'm going to respect those 72 hours that the OAS asked for," he said in Panama, where he attended a presidential inauguration.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Micheletti vowed Zelaya would be arrested if he returns, even though the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador have agreed to accompany him, along with the heads of the OAS and the U.N. General Assembly.
"He can no longer return to the presidency of the republic unless a president from another Latin American country comes and imposes him using guns," Micheletti said.
He also made a bold claim, suggesting the entire Honduran population backs his interim government. Though Zelaya still enjoys strong support, especially among the poor majority, Micheletti warned that all "7.5 million Hondurans will be ready to defend our territory" against a foreign invasion.
His foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, also threatened Zelaya's escorts, saying: "We will let his companions enter if they represent friendly countries. If not, no."
The new government was on a long-shot diplomatic offensive Wednesday, ordering home Honduras' pro-Zelaya ambassadors to the United States, the United Nations and the OAS. U.N. Ambassador Jorge Arturo Reyna said he took orders only from Zelaya's government. The other two could not be reached.
Micheletti also said it had sent a delegation to Washington, hoping to win international support that has eluded the new government. The coup has been condemned by countries worldwide from across the political spectrum, as well as by the U.N. General Assembly.
Micheletti said Wednesday morning that the delegation had already arrived in Washington. But Ortez later said nobody had been sent. Insulza's deputy, Albert Ramdin, said the OAS would not receive any pro-Micheletti delegation in any case.
"Members of the OAS stated very clearly that we don't recognize anybody else than President Zelaya as constitutional president of Honduras," he said.
The Obama administration has also sided clearly with Zelaya, despite criticism from Republicans that this puts it on the same side as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and the Castros in Cuba. Micheletti told the AP he has had no contacts with any U.S. official since the coup.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday that joint U.S.-Honduran military operations are on hold "as we assess that situation." The U.S. has close relations with Honduras' military and has some 800 personnel at an air base north of the Honduran capital used primarily for anti-drug operations.
Outside the heavily guarded presidential palace, where Micheletti was was working in the same office used by Zelaya, hundreds of student activists erected barricades of boulders, signposts and metal sheeting. They covered their faces with bandanas and carried bats, branches and gasoline-filled bottles.
Police moved toward them but backed off before making contact. The students later removed the barricades and joined the larger, peaceful march.
Protesters lined up outside a Burger King that their comrades had ransacked in previous days because the franchise is owned by Micheletti supporters. Some sat in the frames of smashed windows, moving the bandannas covering their mouths to eat their hamburgers and fries.
There were heavy police and army patrols throughout Honduras' main cities and highways, and some hospitals and schools were closed due to walkouts by pro-Zelaya teachers and health workers. But it was life as usual for most of the capital.
"We still have to go to work, despite what happened with the government," said Manfredo Brizzio, a tour operator who said he supports Zelaya but doesn't have time to demonstrate.
Two small explosives detonated in the capital, near the Supreme Court and the offices of a pro-Micheletti radio station. Police would not comment, but witnesses said there were no injuries or major damage.
Zelaya's popularity has sagged in recent years, but his criticism of the wealthy and policies such as raising the minimum wage have earned him the loyalty of many poor Hondurans.
"The people are with him," said Santos, the farm hand. "The poor people - and in this country there are many poor people."
Ikeda reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Marcos Aleman and Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Kathia Martinez in Panama City and Ricardo Reif in New York contributed to this report.