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Desperate Honduran leaders vow to restore freedoms

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MARK STEVENSON | September 28, 2009 11:00 PM EST | AP

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The coup-installed president of Honduras backed down Monday from an escalating standoff with protesters and suggested he would restore civil liberties and reopen dissident television and radio stations by the end of the week.

Riot police ringed supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya who gathered for a large-scale protest march, setting off a daylong standoff. The government of interim President Roberto Micheletti declared the march illegal, sent soldiers to silence dissident broadcasters, and suspended civil liberties for 45 days.

But in a sudden reversal, Micheletti said Monday afternoon that he wanted to "ask the Honduran people for forgiveness" for the measures and said he would lift them in accordance with demands from the same Congress that installed him after a June 28 coup. He said he would discuss lifting the measures with court officials "as soon as possible," adding: "By the end of this week we'll have this resolved."

He also repeated his pledge not to attack the Brazilian Embassy, where Zelaya has been holed up with 60 supporters since sneaking back into the country Sept. 21. He even sent "a big hug" to Brazil's president, a day after giving him a 10-day ultimatum to expel Zelaya or move him to Brazil.

His government also said it would welcome an advance team from the Organization of American States into the country starting Friday, after expelling four members of a similar team Sunday, and said an OAS commission of foreign ministers could visit on Oct. 7.

The increasingly authoritarian measures by the government had prompted international condemnation, though the U.S. representative to the OAS also had harsh words for Zelaya, calling his return to Honduras "irresponsible and foolish."

The Micheletti government says Zelaya supporters are planning a violent insurrection.

"Some radio stations, some television stations, were calling for violence, for guerrilla war, and that had us in the government super worried," Micheletti said.

So far, protests have seen little bloodshed – the government says three people have been killed since the coup, while protesters put the number at 10. Protest leader Juan Barahona said that could change.

"This mass movement is peaceful, but to the extent they repress us, fence us in and make this method useless, we have to find some other form of struggle," he said.

Micheletti made clear that even if the emergency measures are lifted, "that doesn't mean the police are going back to barracks."

Monday's march drew hundreds of people, many of whom covered their mouths with tape to protest government censorship. Protest leaders insisted that thousands more were trying to join but were stopped from leaving poorer neighborhoods or from traveling from the countryside.

"There is brutal repression against the people," Zelaya told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday.

He later addressed the U.N. General Assembly by cellular phone, urging the world body to adopt a "firm position" against the "barbarism" of the government that deposed him.

"Those who still harbored any doubt that a dictatorship has been installed here can lay those doubts to rest. This is a fascist dictatorship that has repressed the Honduran people," Zelaya said via a telephone brought to the General Assembly podium by his foreign minister, Patricia Rodas.

The emergency decree issued Sunday bans unauthorized gatherings and lets police arrest people without warrants, rights guaranteed in the Honduran Constitution. It also allows authorities to shut news media for "statements that attack peace and the public order, or which offend the human dignity of public officials, or attack the law."

In the late afternoon, police allowed the protesters to board buses and leave.

Government soldiers raided the offices of Radio Globo and the television station Channel 36, both critics of the Micheletti government, and silenced both. Afterward, the TV station broadcast only a test pattern.

Radio Globo employees scrambled out of an emergency exit to escape the raid that involved as many as 200 soldiers.

"They took away all the equipment," said owner Alejandro Villatoro. "This is the death of the station."

Two journalists covering the raid for Mexico's Televisa and Guatemala's Guatevision were beaten by security forces, who also took their camera, according to Guatemala's ambassador to the OAS, Jorge Skinner. He asked the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission to intervene.

The OAS held an emergency meeting in Washington on Monday after Honduras expelled the OAS advance team. Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez said the team had not given advance notice of its arrival.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley condemned the expulsion.

"I think it's time for the de facto regime to put down the shovel," he said. "With every action they keep on making the hole deeper."

Lew Amselem, the U.S. representative to the OAS, also condemned the expulsion as "deplorable and foolish." But had equally harsh words for Zelaya. He said returning without an agreement "serves neither the interests of the Honduran people nor those seeking the peaceful reestablishment of the democratic order in Honduras."

He added: "Those who facilitated President Zelaya's return ... have a special responsibility for the prevention of violence and the well-being of the Honduran people." He did not say to whom he was referring.

The increasingly authoritarian actions by the interim government signaled an abrupt shift in strategy after appealing for foreign support and arguing it ousted Zelaya to preserve democracy.

Only last week, Micheletti argued in a letter to the Washington Post that his government was not a coup, citing as evidence that freedom assembly was still allowed: "They do not guarantee freedom of the press, much less a respect for human rights. In Honduras, these freedoms remain intact and vibrant."

He argued that the international community will have no choice but to recognize a Nov. 29 vote – "the ultimate civil exercise of any democracy – a free and open presidential election."

Zelaya supporters noted that the emergency decree effectively outlawed any campaigning until two weeks before election day.

"If they can't campaign ... what happens then to the electoral solution?" asked protest leader Rafael Alegria.

Analysts called the shift a sign that the Micheletti government is feeling increasingly threatened.

"It certainly shows that they're worried that Zelaya might be able to disrupt the government," said Heather Berkman, a Honduras expert with the New York-based Eurasia Group. "Zelaya's only recourse really is to mobilize people on the streets. I'm sure that Micheletti and the government know that and they're going to do whatever they can to prevent that."

She called it a risky move: "They're damaging their own credibility, and really hurting the economy."

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Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Martha Mendoza and Catherine Shoichet in Mexico City.