President’s Ouster Legal, New Honduran Leaders Contend

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—Flipping through a stack of legal opinions and holding up a detention order signed by a Supreme Court judge, the chief lawyer of the Honduran armed forces insisted that what soldiers carried out over the weekend when they detained President Manuel Zelaya was no coup d’état.
“A coup is a political move,” Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza Membreño said in an interview Tuesday night. “It requires the armed forces to assume power of the country, which didn’t happen, and it has to break the rule of law, which didn’t happen, either.”

Governments around the world have decided differently, labeling Mr. Zelaya’s removal an illegal act and calling for his prompt return to power. “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected president there,” President Obama said Monday.

Colonel Bayardo, dressed in green camouflage and wearing a blue beret, described a behind-the-scenes struggle between the armed forces and Mr. Zelaya that played out over weeks before the fateful decision to grab the president from his home, shuttle him to a military base and fly him out of the country.

The army had resisted participating in a referendum on constitutional changes that Mr. Zelaya continued to push after both the Congress and the courts had labeled the president’s move unconstitutional. Army lawyers were convinced that Mr. Zelaya was moving to lift a provision limiting presidents to a single term in office, Colonel Bayardo said.

When the army refused an order to help organize the survey, the president fired the armed forces commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez. He was later reinstated by the Supreme Court, which found his removal illegal.

The detention order, signed on June 26 by a Supreme Court judge, ordered the armed forces to detain the president, identified by his full name of José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, at his home in the Tres Caminos area of the capital. It cited him for treason and abuse of authority, among other charges.

“It was a clean operation,” Colonel Bayardo said, dismissing Mr. Zelaya’s remarks before the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday in which he described the arrest as a brutal coup. “It was a fast operation. It was over in minutes and there were no injuries, no deaths. We said, ‘Sir, we have a judicial order to detain you.’ We did it with respect.”

Two days before the removal of Mr. Zelaya, military leaders met with Roberto Micheletti, the leader of Congress at the time who has since taken over as president, to discuss what was viewed as a constitutional crisis, Colonel Bayardo said. But it was not until the day before the predawn raid that everything came into place with a flurry of secret meetings involving army and civilian lawyers as well as a small group of political leaders. At about 11 p.m. Saturday, the detention order reached the army’s top command, Colonel Bayardo said. It was carried out early the next morning.

Colonel Bayardo said a tight circle of people knew about the raid, and they did not include any American military or civilian leaders or other foreigners. “We had no obligation to inform the U.S.,” he said.

Ironically, Mr. Zelaya had nurtured close relations with the armed forces during his nearly three and a half years in office. “President Zelaya thought he had bought us,” Colonel Bayardo said. “He raised our salaries. He was our friend.”

But the president considered friendship to be loyalty at all costs, Colonel Bayardo contends.

“His view of friendship was different from ours,” the colonel said, vowing to carry out another arrest of Mr. Zelaya, who has vowed to return to Honduras on Thursday

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