Curfew ordered in Honduras as ousted leader holes up

Miami HeraldSeptember 22, 2009 

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Ousted Honduran President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya prepared to spend a second night holed up in the Brazilian Embassy Tuesday as police fought running battles with his supporters and world leaders called for a peaceful solution to the dramatic standoff.

Defying arrest orders, Zelaya slipped into Honduras on Monday and took refuge at the diplomatic compound. As his followers surrounded the building, his rival and de facto President Roberto Micheletti imposed a curfew, shut down the airport and border crossings, and called on Brazil to hand Zelaya over on charges of treason and abuse of power.

Riot police moved in Tuesday morning, dispersing the crowds and detaining about 165 people on charges of vandalism and breaking curfew, police spokesman Orlin Cerrato said.

Venezuela's TeleSur and some local media reported that at least one person was killed and more than 300 people detained as a result of the action. However, police denied the claims, which couldn't be independently verified.

Zelaya's return thrusts the nation's three-month political crisis back in the spotlight as world leaders gather at the United Nations in New York, and Honduras is ramping up for Nov. 29 presidential elections.

Zelaya was ousted from Honduras at gunpoint on June 28 after he defied the supreme court and congress by pushing ahead with a referendum that would have allowed him to convene an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Opponents feared he was taking cues from his ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and was bent on extending his presidential term, which was due to end in January. Zelaya has denied those charges and insists the redrafting would not have begun until after he was out of office in January.

Zelaya, who was scheduled to speak at the U.N. on Wednesday, told The Associated Press that he has no plans to leave the embassy and invited Micheletti to join him there for talks.

But there was little indication that invitation would be accepted.

Micheletti "has been firm in that Mr. Zelaya has to hand himself over to the law and that he is a fugitive from justice," Micheletti's press advisor Cesar Caceres told The Miami Herald. "He also thinks it's unfortunate that the Brazilian embassy is interfering in Honduras' legal affairs."

In New York, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told The Associated Press that Brazil was simply fulfilling its democratic duty by allowing Zelaya to enter the compound. Silva also asked Zelaya not to do anything that might provoke an invasion of the diplomatic mission.

Standing outside the embassy, in the upscale neighborhood of Palmira, police spokesman Cerrato said the compound was guarded by about 60 officers who were under clear orders not to cause a diplomatic stir.

"We respect the fact that this is a diplomatic zone," he said. "Under no circumstances are we planning on entering the embassy."

Despite reports that utilities and telephone lines to the embassy had been cut, a journalist inside the compound said only electricity had been shut off Monday night but was restored Tuesday. Even so, the entourage inside the compound was running low on drinking water and Zelaya was visibly fatigued by the ordeal, the reporter said.

In Nicaragua, Zelaya adviser Allan Fajardo said the risky move was needed to force the Micheletti to the table.

"We are asking for a national and international dialogue but there is no indication that the coup leaders will heed that call," Fajardo said.

In New York on Tuesday, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who had tried to negotiate a solution to the impasse, said he was blindsided by Zelaya's move and asked both parties to resume talks before violence erupted.

"If I can help, I will try," he said, offering to mediate again. "What I don't want is any more violence."

On Tuesday, police said they have had at least one violent confrontation with a group of armed men in the southern part of Tegucigalpa. The violence prompted the government to extend the curfew until 6 a.m. Wednesday. Authorities set up roadblocks around the country Tuesday to prevent Zelaya supporters from getting to the capital.

Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the presidential candidate for the opposition National Party and a front-runner in the race, called on Micheletti to defray tensions.

"Now more than ever we need to push ahead with negotiations," he said by telephone from his home in Tegucigalpa. "We are asking both sides to sit down and talk. All of the candidates are ready to do whatever is necessary to make sure these talks lead to an agreement and peace in the nation."

Since being toppled, Zelaya had tried to return to Honduras twice — once by air and once by crossing the border with Nicaragua — but both attempts failed.

In the meantime, Honduras has found itself internationally isolated. Not a single nation has recognized the new administration, aid has been slashed and the U.S. has suspended visas for Micheletti and top staffers.

Even so, the Honduran authorities were hoping upcoming elections could clear the air and put the nation back on course.

Union Civica Democratica, the largest coalition of civil society groups in Honduras, called on both parties to sign a pledge to respect free and fair elections Nov. 29.

Eyewitnesses on Tuesday said the streets were largely barren, in stark contrast to Monday when the announcement of the 4 p.m. curfew sent workers and students scrambling.

On Tuesday, with virtually no buses and taxis on the road, some workers had to walk for hours to get to their jobs.

Denis Pacheco, 22, said his university announced the curfew at about 2:45 p.m. He eventually ran out of gas after sitting in traffic for three hours and ended up sleeping at a friend's house.

"Hopefully once the curfew ends I can make it home," he said. "But I will have to drive right by the embassy, so we'll see."

(Wyss reported from Miami and Robles from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Tyler Bridges contributed to this article from Caracas, Venezuela, and special correspondent Stew Stogel contributed from the United Nations.)

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