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Protests Erupt, Shots Fired After Honduras Coup

Supporters of President Manuel Zelaya protest against the coup in Tegucigalpa
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -- Shots were fired near the presidential palace in Honduras where protests erupted after the army ousted and exiled leftist President Manuel Zelaya on June 28 in Central America's first military coup since the Cold War.

Hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters, some masked and wielding sticks, set up barricades of chain link fences and downed billboards in the center of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and blocked roads to the presidential palace.

Reuters witnesses heard shots outside the presidential palace that apparently came after a truck arrived at the protest, and an ambulance also appeared. It was not clear who fired the shots. One witness said shots were fired only in the air and there were no initial reports of injuries.

In neighboring Nicaragua, leftist leaders from the region led by Zelaya's ally Venezuelan Hugo Chavez gathered in the capital Managua for late night talks on the crisis.

Zelaya, in office since 2006, was ousted in a dawn coup after he angered the judiciary, Congress, and the army by seeking constitutional changes that would allow presidents to seek reelection beyond a four-year term.

The Honduran Congress named an interim president, Roberto Micheletti, who announced a curfew for the nights of June 28 and June 29. The country's Supreme Court said it had ordered the army to remove Zelaya.

The coup was strongly condemned by Chavez -- who has long championed the left in Latin America. Chavez put his army on alert on June 28 in case Honduran troops moved against his embassy or envoy there.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, the European Union, and a string of other foreign governments also voiced backing for Zelaya, who was snatched by troops from his residence and whisked away by plane to Costa Rica.

The Organization of American States demanded Zelaya's immediate and unconditional return to office.

Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile, and banana exporter with a population of 7 million, had been politically stable since the end of military rule in the early 1980s.

But Zelaya has moved the country further left since taking power and struck up a close alliance with Chavez, upsetting the army and the traditionally conservative rich elite.

In central Tegucigalpa, groups of men, some holding metal pipes and chains and their faces covered with T-shirts, threw rocks at cars trying to enter the area late on June 28. Remnants of burned tires and a charred newsstand selling papers seen supporting the coup lay smoldering in the street.

Troops in full fatigues with automatic weapons lined the inside of the fenced-off presidential palace, some covering their faces with riot gear shields as protesters taunted them.

"For the country to have peace in the future, there will have to be deaths, injuries. We are willing to fight to the death," said Cristhian Rodriguez, a 24-year-old plumber, who had set up an improvised tent in front of the palace.

Honduras is a big coffee producer but there was no immediate sign the unrest would affect output.

Managua Meeting

Zelaya's bid to hold a poll on June 28 on changing the constitution to let presidents stay beyond one four-year term had set him in opposition to the army, courts and Congress and he tried to fire the armed forces chief, General Romeo Vasquez, last week over the issue. Zelaya was due to leave office in early 2010.

A former businessman who sports a cowboy hat and thick mustache, Zelaya, 56, told Venezuela-based Telesur television station he was "kidnapped" by soldiers and barely given time to change out of his pajamas. He was later bundled onto a military plane to Costa Rica.

Zelaya, now in a smart white shirt, sat down on June 28 with Chavez, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega in Managua. Bolivia's Evo Morales and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza were en route.

The global economic crisis has curbed growth in Honduras, which is heavily dependent on remittances from Honduran workers abroad. Recent opinion polls indicate public support for Zelaya has fallen as low as 30 percent.

After Zelaya's ouster, the army guarded Congress as as Honduran deputies unanimously elected Congress head Micheletti, a member of Zelaya's own Liberal Party, as interim president until after a presidential election in November.

Micheletti defied world pressure to reverse the coup, saying: "I don't think anyone here, not Barack Obama and much less Hugo Chavez, has the right to come and threaten [Honduras]."

Foreign Reaction

Chavez said he would do everything necessary to abort the ouster. He said if the Venezuelan ambassador was killed, or troops entered the embassy "we would have to act militarily," adding: "I have put the armed forces of Venezuela on alert."

Chavez has in the past threatened military action in the region but never followed through.

The United States and other foreign governments condemned the coup. Obama called for calm and a senior administration official said Washington recognized only Zelaya as president.

"Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference," Obama said in a statement.

The coup could be an early test for Obama as he tries to mend the United States' battered image in Latin America.

"This is a golden opportunity to make a clear break with the past and show that he is unequivocally siding with democracy, even if they [Washington] don't necessarily like the guy," former Costa Rican Vice President Kevin Casas-Zamora told Reuters in Washington.

Honduras was a U.S. ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight Marxist rebels.

Chavez, who is known for his stridently anti-U.S. rhetoric and has in the past accused the United States of backing his own removal, said there should be an investigation to see if Washington had a hand in Zelaya's ouster. The White House denied any participation in the coup.

The United States still has about 550-600 troops stationed at Soto Cano Air Base, a Honduran military installation that is also the headquarters for a regional U.S. joint task force that conducts humanitarian, drug, and disaster relief operations.

Democracy has taken root in Central America in recent decades after years of dictatorships and war, but crime, corruption and poverty are still major problems. Zelaya said the coup smacked of an earlier era.

"If holding a poll provokes a coup, the abduction of the president and expulsion from his country, then what kind of democracy are we living in?" he said in Costa Rica.

The Supreme Court, which last week came out against Zelaya and ordered him to reinstate fired military chief Vasquez, said on June 28 it had told the army to remove the president.