Posted on Sun, Jul. 05, 2009
last updated: July 05, 2009 11:18:43 PM
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Thousands of people swarmed Tegucigalpa's airport Sunday in a raucous and sometimes violent cry to demand the return of toppled President Manuel Zelaya, whose homecoming was postponed when Honduran authorities refused to let his plane land.
Soldiers and police in riot gear formed a human shield around the runway, and the military used tear gas to break up rock-throwing protesters. At least one demonstrator died when he was shot in the head as he tried to scale a security fence.
The violence came one week after Zelaya was spirited out of his country by soldiers who hustled him onto a plane to Costa Rica. His attempt to return came after the Organization of American States on Saturday suspended Honduras's membership.
Zelaya had pledged to return on Sunday. Aboard the plane with him was Nicaraguan diplomat Miguel D'Escoto, who is the current president of the U.N. General Assembly. But the Honduran military cluttered the runway with vehicles and soldiers, and Zelaya's plane was diverted to El Salvador, where Zelaya was to meet with the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay and the secretary general of the OAS, who'd flown aboard separate aircraft.
''If I had a parachute, I would jump off,'' Zelaya said in a live telephone interview broadcast from his aircraft to Venezuela's Telesur network. ``They are threatening to kill us.''
Zelaya's anticipated arrival in Honduras created a tense standoff at the airport, as civil aviation officials insisted the plane could not land, while masses assembled on the ground and Zelaya gave live updates as his plane circled the capital.
The air traffic communication between the pilot and the control tower broadcast over the Internet underscored the tension.
''Requesting permission to land with the head of the United Nations, so he can evaluate the situation on the ground,'' the pilot said.
''Negative. Honduran military aircraft only. Those are the clear instructions,'' an air traffic controller responded. ``Any lack of understanding of the clear instructions and the aircraft will be intercepted.''
Several minutes later, the pilot asked for clarification: 'What does intercepted mean? Explain. Please explain 'intercepted.' ''
There was no reply. When he got no response after asking repeatedly, he said, "Bound to Managua.''
As the plane flew low over the Toncontín airport Zelaya's supporters roared below with chants of "We want Mel!''
A U.S. State Department official said Sunday that Zelaya would return to Washington on Monday if his efforts to return were unsuccessful.
The U.S. and other nations had urged Zelaya not to make the brazen trip home. ''We along with a variety of other countries made it clear we did not think this was wise,'' the senior U.S. official said.
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