TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS // The daring return of the deposed Hondruas president Manuel Zelaya has thrust Honduras back onto the world stage and posed a sharp challenge to interim leaders determined to hold new elections without him after a June coup. Thousands of Mr Zelaya's supporters defied a curfew and spent the night surrounding Brazil's embassy, where the leader remained holed up today, a day after slipping back into the country.
In exile since June 28, Mr Zelaya said he had travelled for 15 hours overland in a series of vehicles to pull off the stealth homecoming. The government of interim president, Roberto Micheletti, ordered a 26-hour shutdown of the capital Tegucigalpa yesterday afternoon, closing the airport and setting up roadblocks on highways leading into town. The measures were taken to keep out more of Mr Zelaya's supporters from other regions in an attempt to head off the big protests that disrupted the city after his ouster.
But Mr Zelaya's loyalists ignored the decree and surrounded the embassy dancing and cheering and using their cell phones to light up the streets after electricity was cut off on the block housing the embassy. "We're here to support him and protect him, and we're going to stay here as long as it's physically possible," said Carlos Salgado, a 43-year-old jewellery maker from Mr Zelaya's home state of Olancho.
Supported by the US and other governments since his ouster, Mr Zelaya called for negotiations with the leaders who forced him from the country at gunpoint. But Mr Micheletti urged Brazil to turn Mr Zelaya over to Honduran authorities for trial. Mr Zelaya said that he was trying to establish contact with the interim government to start negotiations on a solution to the standoff that started when soldiers flew him to Costa Rica. "As of now, we are beginning to seek dialogue," he said.
Talks moderated by the Costa Rican president Oscar Arias stalled over the interim government's refusal to accept Mr Zelaya's reinstatement to the presidency under a power-sharing agreement that would limit his powers and prohibit him from attempting to revise the constitution. In June, the country's congress and courts, alarmed by Mr Zelaya's political shift into a close alliance with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuba, backed the president's removal. He was arrested on orders of the supreme court on charges of treason and abuse of power for ignoring court orders against holding a referendum on reforming the constitution. His opponents feared he wanted to end a constitutional ban on re-election - a charge Mr Zelaya denied.
Mr Arias called his proposed compromise the last option to end the Honduran crisis. "I think this is the best opportunity, the best time now that Zelaya's back in his country," he said in New York. The interim government was clearly caught off guard by Mr Zelaya's dramatic move. Only minutes before he appeared publicly at the Brazilian Embassy, Honduran officials said reports of his return were a lie. They soon ordered a 15-hour curfew, and then later extended the shutdown by another 11 hours, until 6pm local time today.
Speaking from the embassy, Mr Zelaya summoned his countrymen to come to the capital for peaceful protests and urged the army to avoid attacking his supporters. "It is the moment of reconciliation," he said. Teachers' union leader Eulogio Chavez announced that the country's 60,000 educators would go on strike indefinitely on Tuesday to back Mr Zelaya's demand to be reinstated. International leaders were almost unanimously against the armed removal of the president, worrying it could return Latin America to a bygone era of coups and instability.
Mr Zelaya returned on the eve of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the opposing factions in Honduras to look for a peaceful solution. "It is imperative that dialogue begin, that there be a channel of communication between president Zelaya and the de facto regime in Honduras," Mrs Clinton said at a joint news conference with Arias. Mr Micheletti showed no inclination to give any ground, saying late on Monday that Mr Zelaya had violated Mr Arias' mediation effort by returning. "Arias' mediation in Honduras' political problem has ended ... and he has absolutely nothing else to do in this conflict," Mr Micheletti said in a televised interview.
The United States, European Union and international agencies have cut aid to Honduras to press for his return. The US state department announced on September 4 that it would not recognise results of the November 29 presidential vote under current conditions - a ballot that was scheduled before Mr Zelaya's ouster. The coup has shaken up Washington's relations with Honduras, traditionally one of its strongest allies in Central America. The secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, called for calm and warned Honduran officials to avoid any violation of the Brazilian diplomatic mission. "They should be responsible for the safety of president Zelaya and the Embassy of Brazil," he said.
Mr Zelaya said he had "evaded a thousand obstacles" in getting back to Tegucigalpa but declined to give specifics on who helped him cross the border, saying that he didn't want to jeopardise their safety. The Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorin said neither his country nor the OAS had any role in his journey before taking him in. "We hope this opens a new stage in negotiations," Mr Amorin said. But Honduras' foreign relations department accused Brazil of violating international law by "allowing Zelaya, a fugitive of Honduran justice, to make public calls to insurrection and political mobilisation from its headquarters."
In the days following the coup, at least two of the thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets were killed during clashes with security forces. Thousands of other Hondurans demonstrated in favour of the coup. *AP