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Honduras declares curfew as street violence persists amid disputed election count

The government of Honduras declared a nationwide curfew late Friday in an effort to quell an outbreak of violent street clashes, road blockades and looting that have followed last Sunday’s disputed presidential election.

The imposition of a curfew for 10 days between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. — suspending citizens’ rights to travel freely within the country — was read on national television and radio by Jorge Ramon Hernandez, the government’s Cabinet coordinator.

Anyone outdoors during those hours is subject to arrest.

The curfew began at 11 p.m. Friday local time, officials said.

The announcement of a curfew was the latest dramatic development in a political crisis that has gripped this Central American nation.

Authorities said the government decree was meant to restore order after days of street protests led by opposition activists who allege that the count of Sunday’s voting is being rigged to favor incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

The president has a narrow lead, according to results released so far, but the count has yet to be completed.

The large-scale protests across the country have devolved into episodes of road blockades, looting and violent confrontations with police and soldiers.

Both the opposition and the government have condemned the violence and called for a peaceful response to the election results.

As the curfew was announced, a plan to complete the counting of the final ballots appeared to have fallen apart, another sign of the deepening political crisis.

On Friday, electoral officials — in the presence of representatives from the major political parties — were scheduled to begin a tally of thousands of ballots that were to be treated with “special scrutiny” because of reports of irregularities.

But David Matamoros, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which oversees the process, said Friday that the count was put off until Saturday.

The decision was made after the major opposition alliance declined to participate in the special count once electoral authorities rejected their demands for a broader review of the vote results.

“We will do whatever we can to make the process more transparent,” Matamoros said in a statement, while warning that the process needed to be completed soon. “But time is running out.”

Five days after Hondurans went to the polls to elect a president, the outcome has remained unclear and a source of intense controversy.

Protesters supporting the main opposition challenger, Salvador Nasralla, have alleged widespread fraud and vowed to push for a national strike if President Hernandez is officially declared the winner.

With 94% of ballots counted, Hernandez had 42.9% of the vote, compared with 41.4% for Nasralla, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal reported Friday afternoon.

This nation of almost 9 million has been semi-paralyzed by protests and widespread street vandalism since the election.

Debris, rocks and broken glass blocked main arteries in the capital, Tegucigalpa, where many businesses, shops and schools were closed Friday because of the unrest.

A half-block stretch of several colonial-era buildings, including the Museum of Man — which traced the history of the country from its first human settlement — lay in smoldering ruins from fires that broke out Wednesday in the capital’s historic center.

Police and soldiers in riot gear have used tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters, including hooded young men throwing stones and brandishing metal pipes.

Opposition activists blamed pro-government “provocateurs” for the vandalism and violence.

There have been no official counts of casualties in the violence, but news accounts indicated that dozens had been injured and at least two killed. Authorities rounded up more than 50 people accused of vandalism in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

“I am calling on all Hondurans to calmly and peacefully await the Supreme Electoral Tribunal's official results,” the president said in a statement on Friday. “Now that the world's eyes are on us, we have the opportunity to set an example of civility, maturity and respect for one another.”

Vote counts earlier in the week showed Nasralla with a substantial lead, but the tallies tilted in favor of the president after pauses in the release of results and reports of computer failures in the counting system.

The delays have left many suspecting that the voting process was manipulated in favor of Hernandez, a center-right figure whose leadership has been viewed favorably in Washington.

The vote tribunal chief, Matamoros, said earlier Friday that authorities would begin counting the results from 1,301 balloting tally sheets, representing almost 6% of the total vote. Opposition leaders suspect irregularities in those and other votes. But that special count never began amid the opposition demands for a broader review.

“We have very little faith in the official results,” said Rodolfo Pastor, an official of the main opposition coalition, the Alliance Against the Dictatorship. “We can see an effort to manipulate with fraud the results.”

Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor who studies politics in Latin America, said the sudden halt in public releases of the vote tally “looks really fishy.”

“This pattern of the incumbent beginning to lose or [falling] surprisingly behind, and then a computer crash ... it just happens too often in fraudulent elections to not be suspicious,” he said.

The events here somewhat recalled the notorious Mexican presidential election of 1988, when the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party cited a computer glitch as the count stalled. The opposition alleged that the elections were rigged in favor of the ruling party, which managed to keep the presidency.

At the same time, Levitsky said, if rural areas in Honduras were tallied after urban ones, the count reversal could be legitimate. The ruling party is stronger in areas outside cities, he said.

In his statement, the voting tribunal chief — who is close to the ruling party — called for calm as the votes are counted.

“We call on the common sense of the two political candidates to maintain the peace and tranquility of the Honduran people,” Matamoros said in a Twitter message.

Police in riot gear surrounded the national job-training institute where ballots from around the country were being stored and counted. In previous days, thousands of protesters had descended on the outskirts of the complex.

International organizations and foreign governments were urging Hondurans to remain peaceful.

On Friday, Heide Fulton, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, said on Twitter that Honduras was entering “a new unprecedented phase in the electoral process.” She called on all parties to “remain calm while the process unfolds.”

A measure of political instability has troubled Honduras since a military-backed coup ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. That military action still reverberated in this week’s election.

The opposition challenger, Nasralla — a centrist television personality with limited political experience — has Zelaya’s support. Hernandez’s party backed the military coup that removed Zelaya from office.

Hernandez has repeatedly denied charges of corruption and ties to the country’s massive drug trafficking industry. Honduras is a major corridor for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States. The country has also been plagued by internal violence and has one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

Nina Agrawal in New York and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Twitter: @PmcdonnellLAT


UPDATES:

10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with the government announcement of a curfew and other details.

This was first published at 11:25 a.m.

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