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Deposed Honduran leader prepares risky return

Friday, July 24, 2009

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Honduras' deposed president headed toward his nation's border Thursday to prepare a risky return home, an attempt to reverse an ouster that is testing the vitality of democracy in Latin America.

The interim government that sent Manuel Zelaya into exile vows to arrest the president if he sets foot in Honduras. Zelaya said he would make a second attempt to return home Saturday, saying U.S.-backed attempts at mediation had broken down.

Accompanied by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, Zelaya drove a white jeep out of the Honduran Embassy in Nicaragua, heading toward the northern town of Esteli, where he planned to set up camp and plan his next move. Honduran Embassy officials broke into applause and chants of "Long live Mel!" using his nickname.

It was unclear exactly how Zelaya planned to enter the country -- spokesman Allan Fajardo said he could travel by air, sea or land from any of Honduras' three neighboring countries. He said Zelaya would be accompanied by family, supporters and journalists.

Zelaya, wearing a black leather vest and his trademark white cowboy hat, said he hoped soldiers would stand down when they see him return.

"I think the guns will be lowered when they see their people and their president," Zelaya said at a news conference shortly before leaving.

All governments in the Western Hemisphere have condemned the coup, in which soldiers acting on orders from Congress and the Supreme Court arrested Zelaya and flew him into exile. Nations on both sides of the political spectrum say Zelaya's return to power is crucial to the region's stability.

Latin America expert Vicki Gass said that if Zelaya's opponents succeed in driving him from power, it could have a ripple effect in a region where left-leaning elected governments are challenging elites that have ruled many countries for decades.

"Coups could then happen in Peru, where President (Alan) Garcia has a very low approval rating, or in Argentina or in Guatemala," said Gass, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America which promotes human rights and democracy. "Constitutional order and rule of law have to be restored."

Zelaya said the mediation efforts, led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, had failed after representatives of the interim government flatly rejected the possibility that he might return to the presidency. They say they cannot overturn a Supreme Court ruling forbidding Zelaya's reinstatement.

But Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, held out hope that the two sides might still reach a settlement -- and called Zelaya's attempt to return without an agreement "hasty."

"He has always wanted to return to his country, but it's important to make an effort to avoid a likely confrontation," Insulza said.

He said that neither delegation had officially responded to Arias proposal, which calls for Zelaya's reinstatement, amnesty for the coup leaders and early elections.

The United States warned of tough sanctions against Honduras if Zelaya is not reinstated, but also said Thursday it does not support Zelaya's plan to return on his own.

"Any step that would add to the risk of violence in Honduras or in the area, we think would be unwise," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

Zelaya dismissed the concerns of Insulza and the U.S., saying he waited nearly two weeks for the negotiations in Costa Rica to achieve his reinstatement. "Defending our rights is not an act of violence ... we are going to seek dialogue," he said.

In Honduras, Zelaya supporters turned up the pressure, blocking roads throughout the country Thursday and occupying several government buildings in peaceful protests.

The Honduran military thwarted Zelaya's first attempt to return home July 5 by blocking the runway at the airport in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The flight sparked clashes between Zelaya's supporters and security forces in which at least one protester was killed.

Lorena Calix, a spokeswoman for Honduras' national police, said Thursday that officers were ready to detain Zelaya if he makes another attempt to come home.

"When he comes to Honduras, we have to execute the arrest warrant," she said.

Honduras' Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's arrest before the June 28 coup, ruling his effort to hold a referendum on whether to form a constitutional assembly was illegal. The military decided to send Zelaya into exile instead -- a move that military lawyers themselves have called illegal but necessary.

Zelaya's opponents, who objected to his populist and socialist policies, have argued the president was trying to change the constitution to extend his term. Zelaya denies that.

If he is arrested, Zelaya faces four charges of violating governmental order, treason and abusing and usurping power that could bring 43 years behind bars. Prosecutors say they are investigating a raft of other allegations ranging from misappropriation of public funds to drug smuggling -- accusations Zelaya says are purely political.


Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Juan Carlos Llorca in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Marianela Jimenez in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Matthew Lee in Washington.


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