December 19, 2017 / 3:48 PM / 6 months ago

Honduran president ignores new election calls, opponent warns of 'civil war'

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The president of Honduras declared himself re-elected on Tuesday despite calls from the Organization of American States (OAS) for a fresh vote over allegations of fraud and deadly protests following last month’s disputed election.

Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez talks with an unidentified person during a funeral mass for his late sister Hilda Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

In Washington, his rival asked the United States and others to reject the result and cut off aid, warning that protests in which more than 20 people have died could escalate into generalized violence unless there is a new election.

The opposition alliance said it would file a legal challenge to the country’s electoral tribunal’s verdict that President Juan Orlando Hernandez won the Nov. 26 election.

Hernandez spoke for the first time since the tribunal issued that verdict on Sunday. A partial recount did not tip the result in favour of his opponent, TV host Salvador Nasralla, the tribunal said.

Hernandez, who is an ally of the United States, said in a televised address that he would bring “peace, harmony and prosperity” to the poor Central American nation.

“As a citizen and president-elect of all Hondurans, I humbly accept the will of the Honduran people,” said Hernandez, a conservative who has led a military crackdown on the country’s violent gangs.

Nasralla, who leads a centre-left coalition, called for a new vote monitored by international observers, saying Hernandez was holding onto power illegally.

“Honduras runs the risk of falling into an undesired and fratricidal civil war, with unforeseen consequences in the Central American region,” he told reporters.

At least 24 people, including two police officers, have died in simmering protests around the country since the opposition declared fraud, according to the Honduran human rights group COFADEH, which tracks kidnappings and murders by the state. However, for the most part the protests have been relatively small.

Opposition leaders have accused government security forces of firing into barricades and peaceful protests. A military official said troops are firing only into the air and only if they are in imminent danger, such as coming under fire. Opposition leaders deny protesters are armed with guns.

The political unrest has hit a country that struggles with violent drug gangs, one of world’s highest murder rates - although murders have dropped under Hernandez’s crackdown - and endemic poverty. Together, these drive a tide of Hondurans to migrate to the United States.

CUT OFF AID

Nasralla travelled on Monday to Washington to meet with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and a senior State Department official.

Following his visit, the U.S. State Department urged Honduran political parties to raise any concerns about the official results through a formal legal challenge this week - the step that Nasralla’s opposition alliance said later in the day that it would take.

However, Nasralla earlier rejected the value of a legal challenge, saying the courts are controlled by Hernandez. Instead, he said the United States, Latin American countries and other foreign powers should push for fresh elections, not recognise the current results and cut off aid to Honduras.

In the midst of the post-election chaos, the U.S. State Department certified late last month that the Honduran government has been fighting corruption and supporting human rights, clearing the way for Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

As results rolled in on Nov. 26, Nasralla initially seemed headed for an upset win. But results abruptly stopped being issued. When they restarted, the outcome began to favour Hernandez, arousing suspicion among Nasralla supporters.

Shortly after the electoral tribunal backed Hernandez’s victory on Sunday, the OAS said the election did not meet democratic standards and called for a re-run.

On Monday, one of Hernandez’s top officials rejected the call for another vote.

Hernandez, 49, has been supported by U.S. President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, since Kelly was a top general.

Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Frances Kerry

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