Exiled former leader makes surprise return to Honduras

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a dramatic move that seemed like something out of a Hollywood movie, ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya sneaked back into his country and turned up Monday at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

"I'm here unarmed and ready to engage in dialogue," Zelaya said by telephone with Venezuela's Telesur television network. "I'm the president legitimately elected by the Honduran people."

Zelaya's surprise move, nearly three months after the military whisked him out of the country, threw Honduras into confusion and seemed certain to escalate an already tense standoff.

The de facto government of President Roberto Micheletti had promised to jail Zelaya if he returned and try him on 18 charges of corruption and violating the constitution.

Micheletti had no public response to Zelaya's return but imposed a curfew beginning late Monday afternoon aimed at getting Zelaya's supporters off the streets. It was supposed to end at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

The supporters, who'd been demonstrating daily for Zelaya's return, rushed to the gates outside the embassy as word spread. They treated Zelaya as a conquering hero — "Yes we can!" they shouted repeatedly — and created a human shield to keep away the police and armed forces.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States in Washington, called on Micheletti's government to ensure Zelaya's security within the Brazilian Embassy.

That shouldn't be necessary. International law prevents Honduran forces from trying to arrest Zelaya at a foreign embassy. The grounds are considered Brazilian territory.

Juan Barahona, who's led the groups in Honduras that are demanding Zelaya's return, told Telesur from inside the embassy that any attempt by Micheletti's government to rush the embassy "would result in a bloodbath. There are thousands and thousands of our supporters outside."

Still photos of Zelaya on Monday showed him smiling, greeting supporters within the embassy grounds and wearing his trademark white cowboy hat.

Zelaya's wife, Xiomara, joined her husband at the embassy and thanked Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Zelaya's return to Honduras appeared to catch the U.S. off guard, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials appealed for both sides to avoid actions that could precipitate violence.

Clinton, in New York for meetings at the United Nations, conferred with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who's tried to mediate a solution to the standoff. Arias told reporters he's ready to return to Honduras if necessary to resume negotiations.

While Zelaya's sudden return home has raised the prospect of renewed violence, Arias told Clinton "this actually provides an opportunity" because the Honduran leader's demand to go back to Honduras has been one of the main "impediments" in the stalemated talks, said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Clinton, who conferred by phone with Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, and other U.S. officials do not know how Zelaya snuck back into the country, Crowley said.

Amorim said Monday that Brazil got word of Zelaya's request to enter its embassy in Honduras only 40 to 60 minutes before he arrived. "They told us that President Zelaya was in the immediate area, they asked us if he could come to the embassy and we gave the authorization," Celso said in New York.

Among those who celebrated Zelaya's return was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his closest ally. Chavez had lent the exiled Zelaya a government airplane while he traveled throughout Latin America to rally foreign leaders.

"President Manuel Zelaya, along with four companions, traveled for two days overland, crossing mountains and rivers, risking their lives," Chavez announced. "They have made it to Tegucigalpa."

"The coup mongers should surrender power peacefully!" Chavez told Zelaya by telephone as he spoke live in Venezuela. "I congratulate you for your heroic act . . . and the Latin American people admire you!"

Chavez promised to call other Latin American presidents to organize their support.

No one seriously expects Micheletti to heed Chavez's demand that he resign, and Zelaya's return threatens to disrupt the election of Honduras' next president, scheduled for Nov. 29.

The two leading candidates are Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo of the conservative National Party and Elvin Santos of Zelaya's Liberal Party.

"This could interrupt the elections if Zelaya returns to power," Jorge Yllesca, a political consultant, said by telephone from Tegucigalpa.

Micheletti has shown little willingness to step aside as the U.S., Latin American and European governments have been demanding under an international accord presented by Costa Rica's Arias. President Barack Obama's administration, over the objections of conservatives, has been pressuring the Micheletti government to accept Arias' proposal.

In its latest move, the Obama administration suspended $32 million in aid to Honduras, traditionally a U.S. ally, and revoked travel visas held by Micheletti and other senior political and business leaders.

The agreement calls for Zelaya to return as president under amnesty granted to the military and him for actions related to the coup June 28. Zelaya would govern under limited powers until his term ends as scheduled Jan. 27.

The Micheletti government, a majority of the Honduran Congress and powerful civil and business groups have said they oppose the Arias plan because they don't trust Zelaya to keep his word.

Both Micheletti and Zelaya have presented themselves as the true defenders of democracy in Honduras, a poor Central American country that until Zelaya's ouster had rarely made the international news.

Several people close to Zelaya in Honduras said his return caught them by surprise, so it appeared to have been a closely held secret.

Close advisers, however, told McClatchy a month ago that they'd been telling Zelaya to return, and that an unexpected reappearance in Honduras would scramble the political landscape.

Honduras' crisis began in late June when Zelaya insisted on holding a public referendum on whether Hondurans favored a special assembly to rewrite the country's constitution.

Political and business leaders who already were uneasy over Zelaya's midterm alliance with the leftist Chavez opposed the vote, charging that it was an attempt to extend Zelaya's stay in power, as Chavez has done in Venezuela.

Honduras' Supreme Court said the referendum would be illegal and ordered his arrest, but the military went beyond that by deposing him hours before the referendum was supposed to be held.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from New York. Laura Figueroa of The Miami Herald contributed from Miami.)


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