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DEAL ON HONDURAS STILL ELUSIVE

Pressure intensifies for Manuel Zelaya's return.

With the arrival of today's deadline, hopes of a negotiated resolution to the Honduran political crisis appear to be fading.

Almost a month after the ouster of the country's president, Manuel Zelaya, Honduras' de facto government continues to defy international pressure to restore constitutional order, including threats from the Obama administration and a cutoff of aid by the European Union.

The interim government that took power on June 28, throwing Zelaya out of the country in his pajamas, has not been recognized by a single country.

Yet Honduran officials remain resolute in their opposition to Zelaya's return, no matter the cost to the impoverished Central American nation of 7.5 million.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had what one official described as a "very tough" phone conversation Sunday with interim President Roberto Micheletti, warning him Honduras faces the loss of $180 million in U.S. economic aid if Zelaya is not allowed to return. The United States has already suspended more than $16.5 million in military assistance and is considering canceling the visas of some key Honduran officials and wealthy private sector backers, some of whom have relatives and homes in South Florida.

The European Union froze $92 million in aid Monday after the interim government rejected a plan for Zelaya's return.

Washington has the ability to punish Honduras even more severely.

The United States is Honduras' biggest trade partner with $9 billion in bilateral trade, half of which is with Florida.

"They have the capability of doing things that are devastating for Honduras," said Michael Shifter, a Washington-based expert with the Inter-American Dialogue. "But I don't think the U.S. wants its fingerprints on this as a 'Made in the U.S.A.' deal."

Instead, the United States is counting on broad international pressure to force concessions. U.S. officials are working closely with friendly nations, including Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, to persuade Micheletti to back down, mainly by offering reassurances to keep Zelaya in check if he were to return.

The United States is backing the mediation efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1987. Over the weekend Arias made a power-sharing proposal to let Zelaya serve out the final six months of his term at the head of a broad coalition government. Zelaya accepted the deal, which also included a general amnesty in return for dropping his illegal attempt to hold a re-election referendum.

But it was rejected by the interim government. In a defiant speech Monday, Micheletti vowed not to let Zelaya return, but did not rule out further talks. "The government does not consider the negotiating process has concluded," said Roberto Flores, Zelaya's former ambassador in Washington, who is now representing the interim government. On Sunday, Arias vowed to give the talks another 72 hours, warning that Honduras risks plunging into civil war if the two sides could not agree.

Micheletti's government privately fears that Zelaya is not a man of his word, and would immediately revive his re-election effort if he returned. Zelaya's critics accuse him of seeking to push the country down a socialist path, in the mold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Most countries in Latin America have constitutional bans on presidential re-election, as a bolster against a return to a dictatorial past.

Shortly before the June 28 coup, Honduras' Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya, ruling that his effort to hold a referendum on a constitutional assembly was illegal.

Zelaya has threatened to organize "insurrection" inside Honduras if he is not allowed back. "It is impossible to maintain a regime with bayonets. The world will not allow it, starting with the United States," he said in a radio interview.

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