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Paraguay's Lugo changes tack ahead of summit

Paraguay's former president again shifted course on Tuesday, saying he has decided not to attend a South American summit this week where he had planned to protest his dismissal by Congress.

Fernando Lugo has surprised Paraguayans with conflicting announcements since the Senate voted to remove him from office last week. At first, he said he would comply and leave office. Then, he said he would fight the decision and make his case to the region's leaders.

After saying on Monday that he would travel to Mendoza, Argentina, for a summit of the Mercosur trade bloc, on Tuesday Lugo said he had decided against it.

"I don't want the other presidents to feel pressured," Lugo said on television.

South American leaders plan to discuss a regional response to Lugo's dismissal at the meeting, and Mercosur has barred Paraguay's new government from attending.

Ruben Penayo, an ally of the ex-president and a former government spokesman, said that Lugo "wanted the other presidents to have their hands free in order to analyze the situation in Paraguay."

Congress booted Lugo out of office in fast-track proceedings last week triggered by a clash between police and landless protesters in which 17 people died. The Senate found him guilty of "poor performance of his duties," citing a clause in the constitution that leaves wide room for congressional interpretation.

Former Vice President Federico Franco took office as president after Lugo's removal, and intends to serve out the remainder of his term until August 2013. Franco said Tuesday that he wouldn't support pushing up the general elections, which are scheduled for April 21.

Franco told reporters that he is "the one responsible for guaranteeing there will not be a civil war," the state news agency Ipparaguay quoted him as saying. He said he assumed the presidency "to avoid bloodshed."

Pro-Lugo protests that were held during last week's impeachment process, however, largely faded after Lugo was dismissed and left the presidential palace.

The newly appointed foreign minister, Jose Felix Fernandez, had warned on Monday night that Lugo could face legal consequences if he tried to represent the country at the summit. "Paraguay is represented by President Federico Franco, and I don't think it's appropriate for the ex-president to claim responsibilities he no longer has," Fernandez said.

Franco's newly installed government has been trying to counter growing diplomatic repercussions. Ambassadors have been called home for consultations by the governments of Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Peru.

Cuba's government said in a statement on Tuesday that it was withdrawing its ambassador and will not recognize any administration in Paraguay that isn't the product of a "legitimate vote" by the country's people. Venezuela and Argentina have taken similar stances, saying they would not have ambassadors in Paraguay under the new government and calling Lugo's ouster a congressional "coup."

Cuban President Raul Castro said the crisis in Paraguay shows that "the coups have returned, but disguised," the government newspaper Granma reported on Tuesday.

Castro recalled the 2009 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, as well was the failed 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The government of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, elected five months after Zelaya was whisked out of the country at gunpoint, said Lugo's Senate trial was too short for him to mount a "legitimate defense," though it said it respects Paraguay's right to determine the outcome of its political situation.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he believes Lugo's dismissal wasn't a coup because the country's constitution lays out the impeachment process under which he was removed.

"Is it a violation of due process for a Senate to adopt rules where only two hours are given to a president to defend himself? The obvious answer is yes. The truth is that what happened here was a violation of due process," Santos said in a speech Monday night.

"What we're going to do is try to have the elections pushed forward ... and seek for democracy to be maintained," Santos said.

Officials from across the region were discussing the situation in Paraguay at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington on Tuesday.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that U.S. officials were "consulting with a broad cross-section of our OAS partners ... and taking stock of what our reaction will be, along with our partners."

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Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Asuncion, Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.