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Rebellious police return to duty amid disputed vote in Honduras

Members of Honduras National Police and police officers belonging to COBRA Special Riot Command stand outside the COBRA headquarters as they refuse to crack down on demonstrators in Tegucigalpa, on Dec. 5, 2017.


Police officers returned to duty Tuesday after briefly refusing to enforce a curfew aimed at quelling protests over the slow vote count for Honduras' Nov. 26 presidential election.

Supporters of opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla blocked some highways, deepening the country's political crisis amid claims of fraud by President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who ran for re-election and held a small lead in the final vote tally.

Hernandez apparently headed off the police discontent by paying Christmas bonuses, promising increases to current salaries of about $450 a month, and offering to build apartments for officers.

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"I spoke with a lot of them, and we reached satisfactory agreements," Hernandez said.

While financial questions were long thought to underlie the brief, one-day police strike, some officers also said they were tired of constantly battling demonstrations.

Speaking at the gate to a police special forces base, Javier Diaz of the national police said officers were returning to their posts ready to enforce the curfew.

"The only interest of the low-ranking police was respect for the rights of all Honduran citizens," said Diaz. "We are not going to repress the people. We are going to prevent Honduras from falling into chaos."

Thousands of people had gone to police bases to show their support for the striking police.

On Tuesday, Nasralla supporters blocked the highway between the capital, Tegucigalpa, and the Caribbean coast. Transit police reported similar tie-ups in the cities of El Progreso and La Lima.

Hernandez held a narrow lead in the official results from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – a count that Nasralla has claimed was fraudulent and is refusing to recognize. The opposition candidate had led in initial returns, but saw his edge slowly evaporate as officials took eight days to fully count votes.

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Nasralla applauded the brief police strike, saying these are "crucial moments for democracy in Honduras."

Hernandez called for "peace, common sense, fraternity and national unity," urging his compatriots to be patient as electoral authorities do their job.

The president held 43 per cent of votes to Nasralla's 41.4 per cent, according to the tribunal's website, with 99.98 per cent of the votes counted. The head of the tribunal has said all ballots have been counted, but it has not declared a winner.

Both sides have claimed victory.

Tribunal president David Matamoros said the body was extending through Friday the period for candidates to file challenges.

"We want no doubt to remain," Matamoros said.

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The long delay and lack of clarity in the count has angered Nasralla's supporters and fueled violent – and at times deadly – clashes between protesters and police in several cities. More than 1,200 people have been detained, and the Organization of American States said preliminary reports suggest as many as 11 may have been killed at or near protests.

On Friday, the government declared a 10-day curfew between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. to try to calm the unrest, though on Monday that was scaled back to 8 p.m.-5 a.m.

Political analyst Filadelfo Martinez said the curfew had succeeded somewhat in subduing violence, but he urged politicians "to confront the situation better."

An OAS election observation mission said Monday night that an agreement between the main contenders would be "the only path" to resolve the conflict.

"The narrow margin of the results, as well as the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election, do not allow the mission to have certainty about the results," mission chief and former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said at a news conference.

The OAS backed Nasralla's petition to verify 5,174 ballot boxes that were not reported the night of the election and 1,006 more that were hand-counted due to apparent irregularities.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, issued a statement voicing "increasing alarm" over what he called "repeated delays and suspicious behaviour – which suggests either incompetence or fraud" by the electoral tribunal.

"Honduras faces a defining moment in its modern history. How the government resolves this crisis will determine the path of the country for the foreseeable future. It will also determine the extent of validity and support the next government receives from the United States," Leahy said.

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