TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Gunshots were heard near the presidential palace in Honduras late on Sunday as protests erupted after the country's army ousted and exiled leftist President Manuel Zelaya in Central America's first military coup since the Cold War.
Hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters, some of them masked and wielding sticks, set up barricades in the center of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and sealed off road access to the presidential palace.
A Reuters witness said several shots were heard outside the presidential palace and an ambulance was seen arriving at the scene. It was not clear if anyone was injured or who fired the shots.
Zelaya, in office since 2006, was ousted in a dawn coup after he upset the judiciary, Congress and the army by seeking constitutional changes that would allow presidents to seek re-election beyond a four-year term.
Congress named an interim president, Roberto Micheletti, who announced a curfew for Sunday and Monday nights. The country's top court said it had told the army to remove Zelaya.
The coup was strongly condemned by Zelaya's regional ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- who has long championed the left in Latin America. Chavez put his military on alert 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.
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.
Zelaya tried to fire the armed forces chief, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, last week in a dispute over the president's attempt to hold an unofficial referendum on Sunday about changing the constitution to allow presidential terms beyond a single, four-year term. Under the constitution as it stands, Zelaya would have been 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 that 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 was to fly on Sunday evening to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, to meet Chavez and other regional leftist leaders. The OAS said the organization's Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, was on his way to Nicaragua for consultations with the regional leaders.
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.
The army stood guard outside as Honduran deputies unanimously elected Congress head Micheletti, a member of Zelaya's own Liberal Party, as interim president until after the elections 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)."
Honduras is a big coffee producer but there was no immediate sign the unrest would affect output.
Chavez said he had put his troops on alert over the coup and would do everything necessary to abort the ouster.
He said that if the Venezuelan ambassador was killed, or troops entered the Venezuelan embassy, "that military junta would be entering a de facto state of war, we would have to act militarily." He said, "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.
"Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference," he said in a statement.
A senior Obama administration official said later that Washington recognizes only Zelaya as president.
The coup could be an early test for Obama as he tries to mend the United States' battered image in Latin America, a regional expert said.
"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 staunch U.S. ally in the 1980s when Washington helped Central American governments fight left-wing guerrillas.
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?" the ousted president 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 Sunday it had told the army to remove the president.
(Addition reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, David Morgan, JoAnne Allen and Ross Colvin in Washington, and Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas)
We're sorry, this article is unavailable at the moment. If you wish to read this article, kindly contact our Customer Service team at 1-300-88-7827. Thank you for your patience - we're bringing you a new and improved experience soon!