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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Friday recognized the results of Honduras' disputed presidential election despite opposition complaints, irregularities found by poll observers and calls from Congress to back a new vote.
The State Department congratulated Juan Orlando Hernandez on his victory in last month's election but urged the country's electoral commission to fully review any challenges to the results. In a statement, spokeswoman Heather Nauert also urged all sides to refrain from violence amid unrest that has claimed at least 17 lives. She also called on security forces to respect the rights of peaceful protesters.
Hernandez was declared the winner but opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla claimed fraud and came to Washington earlier this week to seek backing from the U.S. and the Organization of American States. Election observers from the OAS and European Union had found irregularities that called the result into question.
"The close election results, irregularities identified by the OAS and the EU election observation missions, and strong reactions from Hondurans across the political spectrum underscore the need for a robust national dialogue," Nauert said. "A significant long-term effort to heal the political divide in the country and enact much-needed electoral reforms should be undertaken."
"We call upon the (election tribunal) to transparently and fully review any challenges filed by political parties," she said. "We urge Honduran citizens or political parties challenging the result to use the avenues provided by Honduran law. We reiterate the call for all Hondurans to refrain from violence. The government must ensure Honduran security services respect the rights of peaceful protesters, including by ensuring accountability for any violations of those rights."
The first results reported by the electoral court after the Nov. 26 election showed Nasralla with a significant lead over Hernandez with nearly 60 percent of the vote counted. Public updates of the count mysteriously stopped for more than a day, and when they resumed, that lead steadily eroded and ultimately reversed in Hernandez's favor.
On Thursday, a group of 20 Democratic legislators had asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support a repetition of the election, citing the irregularities found by observers. They also asked Tillerson to denounce what they consider "excessive use of force" by Honduran security forces handling the street protests that have taken place since.
Honduran police have confirmed 17 deaths, but the opposition and the Committee of Detained and Disappeared, a non-governmental organization, said at least 24 people have been killed in the three weeks of unrest. Demonstrations continued Friday, with rock-throwing protesters clashing with police armed using tear gas.
Nasralla said in a news conference in Honduras' capital that he would continue the fight by filing new demands with Honduras' electoral court to annul the vote and hold new elections.
"It's clear that Hernandez is imposed by the United States because leftist governments terrify them," Nasralla said. "With its weight in international relations, the United States opts for legitimizing a regime rejected by its people."
He added that while he ran as the candidate of a leftist opposition alliance, he is a man without a party and will stand by all Hondurans.
Washington's recognition of the election results followed congratulations sent by Mexico's foreign ministry to Hernandez on Tuesday. Canada and Panama also recognized Hernandez as president Friday.
But countries such as El Salvador and Brazil have held back.
Brazil's Foreign Ministry said Friday that since the election vote has been questioned by opposition parties it would not decide whether to recognize the results until after the Supreme Electoral Court rules on those challenges.
Two of the region's leftist leaders, Presidents Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, meanwhile, have railed against the alleged electoral fraud.
The OAS said Friday that its team of election observers had reported "a series of irregularities and serious deficiencies that surely affected the election results." While the OAS secretary general's office said it would not comment on individual government decisions to recognize Hernandez's victory, it noted that ignoring the observers' reports "sets a dangerous precedent in the face of the many elections to be held in 2018."
Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela and Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.
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