TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – In a high-stakes standoff that played out in the skies over Honduras, the airplane carrying ousted President Manuel Zelaya was forced to circle the nation’s main airport twice before flying away Sunday evening after coup leaders who deposed Zelaya blocked his landing with troops on the runway.
The turn-back of Zelaya’s white jet left thousands of his supporters shouting in disappointment and anger. Minutes earlier, security forces fired tear gas and bullets at the crowd to keep demonstrators away from the airport, which was surrounded by soldiers.
The Red Cross said 30 people were wounded in the melee, but there were conflicting reports about fatalities. The Associated Press reported one death.
Immediately after Zelaya’s plane flew away, Honduran air force helicopters and aircraft appeared over Tegucigalpa, the capital. Zelaya, who had repeatedly vowed to return to his country, later landed in Managua, Nicaragua.
The aerial standoff, which took place at sunset, punctuated a crisis that has gripped this country of 7 million for the past week. The entire hemisphere, including the United States, has been drawn into a bitter political brawl in Honduras between the leftist Zelaya and his conservative opponents that shows no sign of ending soon.
Zelaya was deposed June 28 in a military-backed coup that has been condemned throughout the Americas and has frustrated diplomats in the Obama administration, who have not been able to persuade the Honduran coup leaders to back down. The leaders of the new Honduran government say Zelaya is guilty of treason for advocating a change to the constitution that would allow a president to serve more than one term.
The government of Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president, had warned Sunday that it would refuse to allow Zelaya to land at any airport in Honduras and ordered the military to turn the plane back. The order effectively shut down air traffic across the country for the day. Flights from all major carriers into and out of the nation were canceled.
Zelaya took off for Honduras from Washington’s Dulles International Airport about 3 p.m., followed by a plane carrying the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay, as well as the secretary general of the Organization of American States, according to senior Obama administration officials.
Zelaya was accompanied by top advisers, a Nicaraguan priest and U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann. Also aboard his plane was Venezuelan state television network Telesur, which broadcast live interviews with Zelaya from 35,000 feet.
“Today I feel like I have sufficient spiritual strength, blessed with the blood of Christ, to be able to arrive there and raise the crucifix,” he said in one live transmission.
He insisted that he remained commander in chief of the Honduran military and pleaded with troops to allow him to land.
Asked why his government did not allow Zelaya to land and then arrest him, as officials have repeatedly threatened, Micheletti said that kind of publicity could incite violence.
“When Zelaya is prepared to turn himself in quietly, he can do so,” he said.
Micheletti said in a news conference that Nicaraguan troops were massing at the border with Honduras. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega dismissed the charges of troop movement as “totally false.”
Zelaya said he would try to return home today or Tuesday.
Zelaya left Washington after the OAS voted late Saturday to suspend Honduras, putting in jeopardy about $200 million in loans the Central American country receives from the Inter-American Development Bank. In addition, U.S. military and development aid has been “put on pause,” a U.S. official said, and military cooperation has been limited.
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