The State Department said Thursday it has put much of the U.S. aid program to Honduras on hold pending a legal determination as to whether the overthrow of elected President Manuel Zelaya last Sunday requires an aid cut-off. The United States meanwhile is cautioning Mr. Zelaya against an early attempt to return home.
The State Department's legal team is all but certain to determine that the overthrow of President Zelaya does fit the definition of a military coup, thus mandating a U.S. aid cut-off.
In the meantime, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday the Obama administration has effectively frozen those parts of the U.S. aid program - mainly military and non-humanitarian assistance - that would be covered by an aid cut-off.
A long-standing section of annual U.S. foreign aid legislation stipulates that no such aid can be provided to a country whose duly-elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.
Administration officials began calling the overthrow of Mr. Zelaya a coup within hours after he was arrested and deported by the Honduran military last Sunday, even though the country's legislature later voted to support the ouster.
Spokesman Kelly said officials have paused much of the U.S. aid program while the legal review continues.
"The legal review is ongoing," said Ian Kelly. "We're trying to determine if Section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Act must be applied. In the meantime, we've taken some actions to hit the pause button on assistance programs that we would be legally required to terminate if the events of June 28th are determine to have benn a a military coup."
U.S. aid to Honduras for the current and immediate past fiscal years totals nearly $100 million, including developmental and health assistance, and funds to the Honduran military for anti-drug operations and training for peacekeeping missions.
Honduras also receives agriculture infrastructure aid money from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Spokesman Kelly said it was fair to say that the U.S. aid pause covers most of the program but had no specific figures. The Pentagon said earlier this week military aid was being suspended.
The Obama administration has called for the unconditional return of Mr. Zelaya to the presidency, despite charges by domestic critics that he was acting unconstitutionally to try to extend his term in office, which ends in January.
The United States is backing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis by the Organization of American States, which on Wednesday demanded that Mr. Zelaya be restored to office within 72 hours.
The ousted leader has said he intends to return to Honduras Saturday though spokesman Kelly, when asked about Mr. Zelaya's plans, advised caution. He said the United States would discourage any actions that would prove to be an obstacle to the diplomatic process reaching its desired outcome.
Late Wednesday, a senior administration official called Mr. Zelaya's postponement of an early return, and showdown with interim authorities in Tegucigalpa, a wise decision. He warned that defiance of the OAS demand for the return of Mr. Zelaya would mean the expulsion of Honduras from the regional grouping and a cascade of negative consequences stemming from it.
Although the OAS deadline for the restoration of the Honduran leader expires Saturday, a senior State Department official said that in practice, the diplomatic process will likely go on somewhat longer.
He cited in particular the difficulty of convening a special OAS meeting on Saturday, given that of the organization's headquarters borders on Washington's central mall which is the focus of the July 4 U.S. Independence Day observance.