WASHINGTON — The dueling Honduran governments agreed Tuesday to allow Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate the political dispute, paving the way for a possible resolution to the crisis that's polarized the country.
Word of the proposed talks, which were announced Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and could start as soon as Thursday, came as Clinton met with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and as supporters of de facto president Roberto Micheletti arrived to press their case in Washington.
"We call upon all parties to refrain from acts of violence and to seek a peaceful, constitutional and lasting solution to the serious divisions in Honduras through dialogue," Clinton said at a news briefing, adding that Zelaya and Micheletti had agreed to talk with Arias, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his role in stemming conflicts that raged across Central America during that decade.
Another sign of a potential compromise emerged in Honduras, as the Supreme Court there announced plans to possibly offer amnesty to Zelaya should he be allowed to return to Honduras.
Zelaya asked to speak by phone with Arias after meeting with Clinton. Zelaya said he'd travel to Costa Rica on Wednesday with the idea of starting talks on Thursday, said a senior State Department official who discussed the diplomatic exchanges on the condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity.
"One of the things Arias insisted on was that Zelaya and Micheletti had to be there," the senior official said. "He wanted the decision-makers present."
In Honduras, Micheletti told a local newspaper that he viewed Arias as a "credible man known worldwide."
"I thanked him for his intention of participating in a grand dialogue to resolve the problem in our country," Micheletti was quoted as saying. "We are open to dialogue. We are ready to be heard."
The high-level meeting with Clinton signaled a higher degree of intervention by the U.S., which has joined leaders across the Americas in trying to bring an end to the crisis that began with a predawn raid June 28.
In Moscow, President Barack Obama cited the administration's intent in Honduras as he talked about U.S. foreign policy. In pushing for Zelaya's return, Obama said, "We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not."
The senior U.S. official said a group of countries including the U.S., Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Canada, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic began making calls behind the scenes last weekend, when it became clear that Zelaya's trip home, accompanied by the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay, was a failure.
Arias had suggested he could serve as a mediator, the senior official said, and at the same time Micheletti reached out to Arias, suggesting something similar. Clinton spoke to Arias and told him she thought he could play a useful role. She offered to speak to Zelaya.
"The principal purpose was for Secretary Clinton to help broker a deal, where Zelaya would accept Arias' offer for mediation with the de facto government and to find a quick, peaceful solution to this constitutional dispute," the senior official said.
When Clinton proposed Arias, "Zelaya said he had a lot of admiration and confidence in Arias," the official said.
The de facto government in Honduras had said it would arrest Zelaya if he tried to return and refused to let his plane land Sunday. The senior official suggested, however, that both sides are now trapped — with Honduras facing international condemnation and the possible loss of foreign aid and loans.
"The situation is bad," the official said. "There's been deaths, there are marches and counter-marches, and the potential for further violence is high. But the sides are stuck. Zelaya is stuck outside Honduras and can't get in, and Micheletti is trapped inside Honduras and can't get out."
No countries will be at the talks beyond Costa Rica and the two Honduras sides.
A delegation of Honduran lawmakers and former ambassadors who supported Zelaya's ouster held a press conference Tuesday in Washington to argue that the military was justified in removing Zelaya because he was flouting the Honduran constitution and seeking to overturn presidential term limits.
They expressed optimism at Arias' intervention, however. Roberto Flores Bermudez, the former Honduran ambassador to the U.S., called Arias' potential participation an "extraordinary piece of news we all welcome."
Clinton told reporters that Arias, 68, was selected because of his credentials as a head of state and as a seasoned mediator.
"He is the natural person to assume this role," Clinton said. "Based on my conversation with President Arias, I think he is willing to begin immediately."
Arias will conduct the negotiations not in Honduras but in Costa Rica, Clinton said. Parties, including Zelaya, who was flown to Costa Rica when he was ousted from the presidential palace, will travel to Costa Rica.
(Daniel and Robles report for the Miami Herald. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Tim Rogers in Nicaragua and Laura Figueroa of the Miami Herald in Honduras also contributed.)
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