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Honduras president: Nation calm before controversial vote

  • Story Highlights
  • Honduras' Zelaya: "No reason to be alarmed" ahead of controversial referendum
  • Referendum could set stage to create assembly to write new constitution
  • Zelaya recently fired top commander for failing to support referendum
  • Heads of Honduran army, navy and air force resign in show of support for general
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(CNN) -- The president of Honduras said Friday that the situation in his country was relatively calm, despite signs that he has lost the support of his armed forces, the supreme court and other government institutions.

Honduras president Jose Manuel Zelaya says he will move forward with plans to hold Sunday's referendum.

Honduras president Jose Manuel Zelaya says he will move forward with plans to hold Sunday's referendum.

"There is no reason to be alarmed," President Jose Manuel Zelaya told CNN en Español. But, he added, "the peril is not over -- it's latent."

Zelaya, a leftist elected in 2005, has found himself pitted against the other branches of government and military leaders over the issue of a poll planned for Sunday. It would ask voters to place a measure on November's ballot allowing the formation of a constitutional assembly that could modify the nation's charter to allow the president to run for another term.

Zelaya, whose four-year term ends in January 2010, cannot run for re-election under current law.

The Honduran Supreme Court had ruled the poll illegal, and Congress and the top military brass agreed, but Zelaya remained steadfast.

He said Friday that the poll is justified by a Honduran law "that says the citizens can ask the powers of the state to be consulted. That poll has no binding character. That is, its result -- yes or no -- does not obligate the state to do anything. It's a public opinion poll. It's a poll that does not create new rights, does not create a new law."

He said its sole purpose is to query Hondurans about a possible constitutional change in the next elections in November, when he will no longer be in office. In other words, whatever happens, there is no possibility that he will be re-elected, he said.

Asked about suggestions from his opponents that he may be mentally unstable, he denounced such comments as a conspiracy, and said he has received support from the United States, South America, Caribbean countries, the Organization of American States, the leftist members of the ALBA group, Spain and others.

The political crisis escalated Thursday as Zelaya, followed by hundreds of supporters, led a peaceful protest to a military base to take possession of thousands of ballots to be used in Sunday's contested poll.

"Sunday's poll will not be stopped," Zelaya vowed at the entrance to the military base, where boxes of ballots were removed from storage and put into trucks to be taken to the presidential palace. Moving the ballots prevented them from being voided or destroyed to comply with the court's ruling that the vote would be illegal.

The protest was the latest event in a day of developments that have created a political crisis in a country where about 70 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Earlier Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered that the military's top commander be returned to his job immediately, a little more than 12 hours after Zelaya said he would fire the general for saying the armed forces would not support the poll.

Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez had said the military was caught in a difficult position because the Supreme Court had ruled earlier that the poll is illegal but Zelaya was going ahead with the vote and had instructed the armed forces to provide security.

The court ruled 5-0 that Zelaya violated the general's constitutional rights by firing him without cause, said magistrate Rosalina Cruz.

The military chief said after he was fired that he respected the president's decision to dismiss him, but he could not violate a Supreme Court order last week that prohibited the military from supporting the poll.

"We are soldiers and we have to comply with our responsibilities," Vasquez said Thursday.

But on Friday, he said he never carried through on his threat and that the general had not been fired. "I didn't do it," he said.

Still, Zelaya referred to the court as the "Supreme Court of Injustice" after their ruling.

The heads of the army, navy and air force have resigned in a show of support for Vasquez.

The president of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, said the assembly unconditionally supports the armed forces for respecting the constitution, news reports said.

In another blow for Zelaya, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said Thursday the poll is illegal.

Zelaya said he would ask the Organization of American States to investigate the "crisis," which he said was being perpetrated by people who want to hurt democracy in Honduras.

Congress passed a law Tuesday night that would prohibit a poll 180 days before or after the planned November general election. Under that law, Sunday's poll could not be held.

Politicians huddled Thursday as tension gripped the nation. Rumors of a coup, which had been circulating for days, heightened Wednesday when the armed forces were placed on high alert and held training exercises to prepare for civil disturbances and urban warfare, news reports said.

David Matamoros, a member of the nation's Supreme Electoral Tribunal, said on CNN affiliate Televicentro that the election panel supports the military's action.

The military ruled Honduras for 25 years, until a democratically elected civilian government came to power in 1982.

Zelaya narrowly won the presidency in 2005 with 49.8 percent of the vote to 46.1 percent for Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo.

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