TEGUCIGALPA, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Electoral authorities in Honduras seemed poised to hand the president a second term on Monday even after tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest protests yet over suspected vote count fraud since last week's disputed election.
U.S.-backed President Juan Orlando Hernandez called for his supporters to wait for a final count as protesters from the opposition flooded streets across the country to decry what they called a dictatorship.
As night fell Sunday, the sound of plastic horns, honking cars, fireworks and beaten saucepans echoed over the capital Tegucigalpa, challenging a military curfew imposed to clamp down on protests that have spread since last week.
TV star turned opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, addressing a giant rally in the capital earlier in the day, called on the armed forces to rebel against orders to enforce the curfew, and encouraged supporters to walk out on a national strike starting Monday.
"I call on all members of the armed forces to rebel against your bosses," Nasralla told a cheering throng of supporters who booed nearby troops. "You all over there, you shouldn't be there, you should be part of the people."
Nasralla accuses the government of trying to steal last week's election. TV images showed similar protests in other major cities.
While there were no reports of violence during Sunday's demonstrations, hundreds have been arrested and at least three people killed in recent days.
The government imposed a military-enforced curfew on Friday that expanded powers for the army and police to detain people and break up blockades of roads, bridges and public buildings.
Early last week, Nasralla, a former sportscaster and game show host, appeared to have pulled off an upset victory over Hernandez, gaining a five point lead with nearly two-thirds of the vote tallied.
After an unexplained pause of more than a day, the sporadic vote count started leaning in favor of the incumbent.
"It was a gigantic change," said Mark Weisbrot from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. "The chances of this occurring, had the first 57 percent been drawn as a random sample of tally sheets, is next to impossible."
The electoral tribunal, which is led by a member of Hernandez's party, began a partial recount, which was projected to stretch into the early hours.
Early Monday, Hernandez had nearly 43 percent of the vote while Nasralla had just under 41.4 percent, with more than 97 percent of votes tallied, according to the tribunal's website. Earlier, authorities said they would announce a winner soon.
Nasralla demanded the recount be widened to include thousands more polling stations, but electoral officials have not agreed to expand the review. The Organization of American States on Sunday said Nasralla's demands were doable.
Pope Francis prayed for a peaceful resolution to the political crisis, while the U.N.'s human rights office urged authorities to respect citizen's right to protest.
Venezuela's president accused the United States of backing vote fraud in the country, while the top official at the U.S. embassy praised Sunday's peaceful protests and the "orderly" final count under way.
The Central American country struggles with violent drug gangs, one of world's highest murder rates and endemic poverty, driving a tide of Hondurans to migrate to the United States.
"We cannot continue with this president. We are afraid to leave our houses. We want to study and have a future that is not just going to the United States or being killed by gangs," said Marilyn Cruz, a 27-year old law student, who joined the protests on Sunday.
Hernandez, 49, implemented a military-led crackdown on gang violence after taking office in 2014. He has been supported by U.S. President Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, since Kelly was a top general in the previous administration.
The 64-year-old Nasralla is one of Honduras' best-known faces and is backed by former President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist ousted in a coup in 2009.
Since late last week, three people have been killed as soldiers broke up protesters' blockades of rubble and burning tires. There were also reports that between four and five more had been shot dead in the north of the country on Friday. (Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Writing by Michael O'Boyle and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sandra Maler and Nick Macfie)