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Opposition Leader Lobo Wins Disputed Honduras Vote

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -- Conservative opposition candidate Porfirio Lobo has won Honduras' presidential election in a vote that has put the United States at odds with leftist governments in Latin America.

Lobo, a rich landowner, had over 55 percent support with more than half the votes counted and his closest rival, Elvin Santos of the ruling Liberal Party, then conceded defeat.

The election could calm a five-month crisis which was sparked when the Honduran army overthrew leftist President Manuel Zelaya in June and flew him into exile.

But while Washington looks likely to recognize the November 29 vote, leftist rulers of Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela and other Latin American countries say the election is invalid because it was backed by the coup leaders and could end any hope of Zelaya returning to power.

The division puts in danger U.S. President Barack Obama's attempts to turn a new page with Latin America where memories of military coups supported by the United States during the Cold War are still fresh.

As the partial election results were announced after long delays that officials put down to technical problems, some 300 supporters of Lobo's National Party waved flags and danced in a victory celebration at a hotel in the capital.

Lobo is seen as more able than Santos to lead Honduras out of political gridlock and diplomatic isolation, but Zelaya said the election was illegitimate and accused police of repressing his supporters.

"He is going to be a very weak leader without recognition from the people and most countries," Zelaya said of Lobo in an interview with Reuters.

Soldiers grabbed Zelaya from his home on June 28 and threw him out of the country, sparking Central America's biggest political crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Neither Zelaya nor his arch-rival Roberto Micheletti, installed as interim president by Congress after Zelaya's overthrow, took part in the race.

Lobo vowed on November 29 to end Honduras' isolation from countries like Brazil and international organizations such as the Organization of American States, or OAS, which have frozen Honduras out in retaliation for the coup.

"We are prepared to approach them and ask them to understand that there is a government which was elected, that it is the precise will of Hondurans at the ballot box, that it is a democracy and we should all respect the leadership of countries," he said.

Lula Condemns Election

But Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva again condemned the election, saying that failure to oppose it could encourage other "adventurers" to stage coups in Latin America.

"If the countries that can...make gestures do not do so, we do not know where else there could be a coup," Lula said in Portgual on November 29. His government is increasingly flexing its muscles as Latin America's emerging power and has been disappointed by Washington's response to the Honduras crisis.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the leader of a socialist bloc in Latin America and a close ally of Zelaya, said the vote was "an electoral farce."

The U.S. State Department described the election last week as "a democratic way forward for the Honduran people" after talks to bring Zelaya back collapsed. But Washington has not clearly spelled out whether it will recognize the winner.

The election, which was scheduled before the coup, took place mostly peacefully despite a spate of home-made bomb explosions in recent days and police firing tear gas at pro-Zelaya protesters in the city of San Pedro Sula.

The OAS and United Nations refused to send observers to the election.

Zelaya had upset Congress and the Supreme Court by forging an alliance with Chavez and hinting that the wanted to change the constitution to allow presidential re-election.

Zelaya, camped out in the Brazilian embassy since September when he slipped back into Honduras from exile, told his supporters to boycott the election and said the winner would not be a true president.