Honduras: exiled president Manuel Zelaya prepares to return home

Honduras: exiled president Manuel Zelaya prepares to return home

Honduras braced for a showdown between its rival leaders today as the exiled president, Manuel Zelaya, prepared another attempt to return home and reclaim power, Guardian reported.

Zelaya left Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, on Thursday night and headed north for the Honduran frontier to confront coup leaders who ousted him last month.

Supporters of the leftist president blocked roads and occupied several government buildings in the Honduras's capital Tegucigalpa in anticipation of his homecoming.

With last ditch diplomatic initiatives faltering the interim government hunkered down for potential clashes and said it would arrest Zelaya for treason and corruption if he crossed the border.

Zelaya, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, drove a white 4x4 vehicle out of the Honduran embassy in Managua and headed for the Nicaraguan town of Estelí, halfway to the Honduran frontier, to prepare for his return. Honduran embassy officials clapped and chanted "Long live Mel!" using the president's nickname.

He was accompanied by Venezuela's foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro; relatives, supporters and observers were expected to join.

Zelaya said he hoped Honduran border guards would stand down when they saw him and called on supporters to meet him at the border, though he did not specify where or when he would try to cross.

"I think the guns will be lowered when they see their people and their president," Zelaya told a news conference shortly before leaving. Aides said he would briefly base himself in Estelí before crossing "by land, sea or air".

When Zelaya tried to fly into Tegucigalpa on 5 July soldiers blocked off the runway with military vehicles, forcing the jet to divert to Nicaragua, and fired on pro-Zelaya demonstrators, killing at least one.

Soldiers bundled the president into exile last month after the supreme court, congress and his own party revolted over his attempt to change the constitution, a move they feared could perpetuate his power, as it has that of his mentor, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez.

Foreign governments condemned the coup and isolated the regime. Earlier this week the European Union cut aid and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told the interim president, Roberto Micheletti, to back down. He refused. The interim government claims it has constitutional legitimacy and popular support but has imposed a curfew, censored the media and expelled Venezuelan state media.

Talks brokered by Costa Rica's president, Óscar Arias, broke down this week when Honduras's new rulers refused to countenance Zelaya's return to power even at the head of a unity government. Arias criticised the regime's stubborness. "It is completely isolated. They have become the North Korea or the Albania of Central America."

José Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, held out a slim hope that talks could yet be revived.

The US, which has maintained most of its aid to Honduras, warned of unspecified sanctions if the interim government did not back down. But it urged Zelaya to continue seeking a diplomatic solution and to avoid a potentially tumultuous return to challenge his usurpers. "Any step that would add to the risk of violence in Honduras or in the area, we think would be unwise," said a state department spokesman.

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