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Honduras launches truth commission with US support but repudiation from coup opponents

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — A Truth Commission with strong international support started investigating the Honduran coup Tuesday, helping the country regain the recognition it lost when soldiers ousted President Manuel Zelaya last year.

Zelaya backers call the commission a farce that cements Central America's first successful coup in nearly two decades, and vow not to provide information to its investigators. But the U.S. supports it and the chief of the Organization of American States attended the inauguration.

"We will seek the truth in a disciplined, relentless way," said commission coordinator Eduardo Stein, former vice president of Guatemala, at a ceremony launching the initiative.

Soldiers ousted Zelaya on June 28 at gunpoint after he ignored court orders to stop trying to modify the constitution. The United States and most other countries suspended diplomatic ties with the impoverished Central American country.

But the universal repudiation started wavering after November's presidential elections, which had been scheduled before the coup. Porfirio Lobo, a conservative rancher, took office in January, replacing an interim government.

This commission "exemplifies our resolve to heal wounds, learn from our mistakes and build together the future of this country," Lobo said.

He has won the support of his Central American neighbors, even leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who had been a strong Zelaya ally. The World Bank and other multilateral organizations have resumed lending.

President Obama commended Lobo in a telephone call last week for pressing forward with the Truth Commission, and U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens said it "should be a tool for national reconciliation, not to lay blame."

After a nearly yearlong suspension from the OAS, Insulza said Tuesday that Honduras could be accepted back "at any moment, when the member countries decide it."

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, however, said Monday that he and other leaders were still trying to persuade holdouts including Brazil, which insists Honduras must do more to promote national reconciliation.

In addition to Stein, the commission includes a former Peruvian justice minister, a Canadian diplomat and two prominent Honduran academics. One of the academics, National Autonomous University director Julieta Castellanos, was beaten by police during an anti-coup protest at the campus last year and was an outspoken critic of abuses under the interim government.

Stein said the panel hopes to deliver a final report by January 2011. He said some confidential information will be sealed for a decade until "the wounds of Hondurans are healed."

Skeptics wondered how thorough the investigation could be without the collaboration of Zelaya or most of his supporters. Tensions have deepened in Honduras, with several journalists and activists gunned down on the streets, both supporters and opponents of Zelaya.

A conglomeration of union and peasant groups that opposed the coup, the National Front for Popular Resistance, said the commission merely "serves as an excuse for the coup leaders to avoid justice." It said it would create its own commission "to clarify the crimes committed against the people both before and after the coup."

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the OAS, says there have been at least 50 cases of illegal detention, eight cases of torture, two kidnappings and two rapes of Zelaya supporters since Lobo took office.

"While this initiative may be a small step toward mending the deep divisions present in Honduran society, ongoing human rights violations have proven to be a serious challenge," Matthew Lackey, a researcher for the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, wrote in a report. "This raises questions about the country's dubious potential for peace and reconciliation."

A frustrated Zelaya, exiled in the Dominican Republic, lashed out at his own supporters last week, accusing them of abandoning the fight for his safe return to Honduras in favor of pushing for an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

"This terribly affects my possibilities of returning to my homeland and regaining my rights as a Honduran," Zelaya said in a letter sent to the media.

The campaign to rewrite the constitution prompted Zelaya's ouster in the first place. Soldiers threw him out of office for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum asking Honduras if they wanted a constitutional assembly.

Zelaya said he wanted to shake up a political system dominated by a few wealthy families who ignored the needs of the poor. Critics, including much of Zelaya's own political party, called it a ploy to eliminate presidential term limits and extend his time in power.