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 6 p.m. today.
The supporters, who had 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 has 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.”
Zelaya’s return to Honduras appeared to catch the U.S. off guard, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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 has 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.
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.
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 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.
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