Honduras votes, but Zelaya still stuck in mission

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Hondurans voted for a new president yesterday in an election that could ease a crisis triggered by a coup, but it has also pitted the United States against some of the biggest countries in Latin America.

Neither ousted President Manuel Zelaya nor archrival Roberto Micheletti, installed as interim president by Congress after Zelaya's overthrow in June, was in the race.

That leaves the door open for someone else to take Honduras beyond the gridlock that has crippled the coffee-producing Central American nation for five months and cut it off from international aid.

Security forces fired tear gas at some 500 pro-Zelaya protesters in the northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula, but the balloting was mostly calm.

Doubts remain about whether foreign governments will recognize the election because it could end any hope of Zelaya returning to complete his term in office and hand over power in January.

Washington looks ready to recognize the result, a stance splitting President Barack Obama from some Latin American leaders who say a vote organized by Micheletti's de facto government is illegitimate and would be a victory for coup leaders.

The US State Department has said the election is "a democratic way forward for the Honduran people" after talks to reinstate Zelaya collapsed. A nod from the United States could lead to a trickle of recognition from other countries, but Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela have called the vote invalid.

The two leading presidential candidates hail from the ruling elite and have tried to convince voters that Honduras needs to move on.

"This election is an important step to consolidate a government that can bring us together," said front-runner Porfirio Lobo, from the opposition National Party.

Lobo, a wealthy conservative landowner, says if he wins he will plead with foreign leaders to restore aid.

In an October opinion poll, Lobo was 16 points ahead of his closest rival, Elvin Santos from Zelaya's and Micheletti's Liberal Party.

Soldiers grabbed Zelaya from his home on June 28 and threw him out of the country, sparking Central America's biggest political crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Zelaya had angered the military, Congress, the Supreme Court and members of his own party by moving closer to Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. They accused him of trying to stay in power by changing the constitution, a claim he denies.

The leftist has been camped out in the Brazilian embassy, ringed by security forces, since he slipped back into Honduras from exile in September. Zelaya says the election is invalid and called on supporters to stay home.

"Micheletti, installed by a dictatorship, is flagrantly voting, while the elected president is surrounded by soldiers," Zelaya told a local radio station that supports him.

Despite Zelaya's call for a nationwide boycott, turnout in the capital mirrored the past election, with a steady flow of people casting ballots throughout the day. Authorities kept polls open an extra hour to accommodate people still waiting to vote.