Honduran President Manuel Zelaya arrived in Costa Rica on Sunday after what he described as a coup and a "brutal kidnapping" by soldiers opposed to his efforts to reform the country's constitution and run for another term.

honduras-soldiers-cp-6947687

Soldiers patrol in front of the residence of President Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa on Sunday. ((Esteban Felix/Associated Press))

Zelaya said troops beat his bodyguards and rousted him out of bed at his home earlier in the day.

His personal secretary, Carlos Enrique Reina, said Zelaya was then whisked to an air force base on the outskirts of the capital, Tegucigalpa, before being expelled from the country.

"We're in the process of filing an international complaint," he said as Zelaya was flown to San Jose.

Witnesses reported seeing dozens of heavily armed troops surround the president's residence around dawn.

"We're talking about a coup d'état," labour leader and Zelaya ally Rafael Alegria told Honduran radio Cadena de Noticias. "This is regrettable."

Hours later, the Honduran Congress voted to accept what it said was Zelaya's letter of resignation, and by a show of hands voted to appoint congressional president Roberto Micheletti as his replacement, who hours later declared a nationwide curfew for two days beginning Sunday evening.

But Zelaya said the letter wasn't his and vowed to remain in power. The Honduran Supreme Court said it was supporting the military in what it called a defence of democracy.

Zelaya was taken away shortly before voting was to begin on a constitutional referendum he had insisted on holding, even though the Supreme Court ruled it illegal and everyone from the military and Congress to members of his own party opposed it.

The military arrest was carried out after the armed forces commander, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, announced Friday that he would remain at his post after the country's highest court overturned the president’s decision to fire him two days earlier for refusing to support the referendum.

zelaya-cp-6943160

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya answers questions during a news conference at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa on Friday. ((Esteban Felix/Associated Press))

Voters were to be asked to place a measure on November's ballot for general elections to allow the formation of a constitutional assembly that could modify the country's constitution to allow the president to run for another four-year term.

Zelaya's non-renewable term expires in January.

On Saturday, Zelaya said the results of the vote would be "non-binding." He said its only purpose was to learn whether Hondurans favoured "a switch from representative democracy to participatory democracy."

Zelaya was elected in January 2006 and shifted to the left. He is the latest of a string of Latin American leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to seek constitutional changes to expand presidential powers and ease term limits.

Chavez, speaking on Venezuelan state television, said he would do everything necessary to "abort" the coup, and put his military on alert.

U.S., Canada and EU concerned by events

U.S. President Barack Obama said he was "deeply concerned" by the reports of Zelaya's detention and expulsion, and he called on "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms" in a statement issued by the White House.

"I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," Obama said in a statement.

"Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue, free from any outside interference," he said. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Zelaya's arrest should be condemned.

Peter Kent, Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs, condemned the coup and called for a peaceful resolution.

"Democratic governance is a central pillar to Canada's enhanced engagement in the Americas, and we are seriously concerned by what has transpired in Honduras," he said.

A statement released by the European Union's 27 foreign ministers described the overthrow of Zelaya as an "unacceptable violation of the constitutional order in Honduras."

"The EU calls for the urgent release of the president and a swift return to constitutional normality," said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

Speaking from Costa Rica, Zelaya said he would not recognize any de facto government and pledged to serve out his term, which ends Jan. 27, 2010.

He said he would attend a scheduled meeting of Central American presidents in Nicaragua on Monday and left Costa Rica late Sunday on a plane provided by Chavez, who will also be present.

Honduras has a history of military coups: soldiers overthrew elected presidents in 1963 and 1972. The military did not turn the government over to civilians until 1981, under U.S. pressure.

Interim leader says process was legal

Micheletti, who belongs to Zelaya's Liberal party, was one of Zelaya's main opponents in the dispute over whether to hold the referendum, which is now unlikely to take place.

Micheletti insisted that he did not arrive at his new post, which he will serve until Jan. 27, "under the aegis of a coup d'etat."

"I have reached the presidency as the result of an absolutely legal transition process," he said.

He also defended the army, saying, "the armed forces have complied with the constitution and the laws."

He warned against outside interference after Chavez remarked that if Micheletti were appointed president, "We will overthrow him."

Micheletti acknowledged that he had not spoken to any Latin American heads of state, but said, "I'm sure that 80 to 90 per cent of the Honduran population is happy with what happened today." 

He also announced that Zelaya would be welcome to return to Honduras as a private citizen on one condition: "Without the support of Mr. Hugo Chavez, we would be happy to take him back with open arms."

With files from The Associated Press