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By Gustavo Palencia and Marvin Valladares
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -Scores of Honduran police officers on Monday surrounded the house of former president Juan Orlando Hernandez after the United States asked the government to arrest and extradite Washington's key erstwhile ally in the region.
Speculation has been swirling for months that the United States was planning to extradite Hernandez when he left office amid accusations that he colluded with drug traffickers. Leftist leader Xiomara Castro replaced him as president last month.
Washington's request for extradition represents a major about-face by the U.S. government, which saw Hernandez as a vital ally in the volatile Central America region during his eight years in power.
The United States had already placed Hernandez on a blacklist, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month said there were credible reports Hernandez "has engaged in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking".
Hernandez could not be immediately reached for comment but he has always denied any links to drug traffickers.
A Reuters witness outside Hernandez's house said about 100 police officers were waiting outside.
Hernandez's lawyer, Hermes Ramírez, told Canal 5 television that the former president was holed up inside his home and that the arrest warrant for Hernandez is illegal because he has immunity as a member of the regional Central American parliament.
"They are trying to trample on the rights of President Hernandez," Ramirez said.
Hernandez formally joined the Guatemala-based regional body, called Parlacen, just a few hours after Castro's inauguration as president.
Parlacen affords members immunity from prosecution in Central America, though that immunity can be removed or suspended if a member's home country requests it.
Luis Javier Santos, Honduras' best known anti-corruption prosecutor, said on Twitter that "there is no impediment to his extradition".
The Honduran Foreign Ministry earlier in the day said the U.S. Embassy had requested the arrest of a Honduran politician who is the subject of an extradition request to the United States, without naming him.
A senior Honduran official, speaking anonymously because they were not allowed to speak to media on the subject, told Reuters the United States "requested the provisional arrest of former president Juan Orlando Hernández for extradition purposes".
Melvin Duarte, a spokesman for the Honduran judiciary, said the Supreme Court is due to meet at 9.30am on Tuesday to name a judge to oversee Hernandez' extradition case.
Throughout his time in power Hernandez, cultivated close ties to Washington and most notably won the support of former U.S. President Donald Trump, using Honduran security forces to help the Republican leader cut down on U.S.-bound land migration routes from Central America and further afield.
But allegations of links with drug traffickers dogged his time in power, which was also marred by corruption scandals.
Last year, a U.S. judge sentenced Hernandez's brother to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia and Marvin Valladares.Writing by Drazen JorgicEditing by Clarence Fernandez, Kim Coghill and Gerry Doyle)