Ousted Honduran President Defiantly Returns -- Briefly

Hillary Clinton calls Zelaya's action "reckless"

By morgan lee
|  Friday, Jul 24, 2009  |  Updated 8:53 PM EDT
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Turmoil in Honduras

AP

Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya, surrounded by supporters and the press, lifts the chain that divides the border between Nicaragua and Honduras in Las Manos, Nicaragua, Friday, July 24, 2009. Zelaya's supporters flocked to the remote border between Honduras and Nicaragua to support his bid to reclaim the presidency from the government that ousted him in a June 28 coup.

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EL PARAISO, Honduras – Ousted President Manuel Zelaya took a symbolic step into his homeland Friday, vowing to reclaim his post a month after soldiers flew him into exile.

 

But he stayed less than 30 minutes before returning to Nicaragua, saying the risk of bloodshed was too great. He said he would give talks with the coup-installed government another try.

"I am not afraid but I'm not crazy either," Zelaya told the Venezuela-based television network Telesur. "There could be violence and I don't want to be the cause."

Shortly before Zelaya's crossing, his supporters clashed with soldiers and police nearby after the government ordered everyone off the streets along the 600-mile (1,000-kilometer) border with Nicaragua in a noon-to-dawn curfew. Police said one demonstrator was slightly injured.

Wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, Zelaya walked up to a sign reading "Welcome to Honduras" and smiled to cheering supporters at the remote mountain pass flanked by banana trees.

He stopped a few steps into Honduran territory, speaking to nearby military officials on his mobile phone.

"I've spoken to the colonel and he told me I could not cross the border," Zelaya said. "I told him I could cross."

But he soon went back to Nicaragua and said he was ready to return to the negotiating table.

"The best thing is to reach an understanding that respects the will of the people," Zelaya said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Zelaya's trip "reckless." International leaders had urged Zelaya not to go home without an agreement out of fear it would lead to bloodshed. Zelaya had said he had no choice after U.S.-backed talks with his ousters failed to reinstate him.

The interim government has insisted it will arrest Zelaya once he returns, ignoring threats of sanctions from nations worldwide if he is not reinstated. Soldiers formed a human chain near the border crossing Friday but did not move to approach Zelaya.

In a statement, the interim government of Roberto Micheletti said it too still believes in negotiations. Its deputy foreign minister, Marta Alvarado, accused Zelaya of seeking "subversion and a bloodbath."

Interim Deputy Security Minister Mario Perdomo told The Associated Press that authorities didn't bother to arrest Zeyala because he barely entered Honduras.

"Zelaya made a show of entering Honduras, he put one foot in, and left," Perdomo said. "And he did this in a dead zone of the frontier, which we tolerated."

Zelaya said his reinstatement is necessary to preserve democracy and prevent coups, not only in Honduras but across a region that has seen many in its turbulent political history.

"The people of Latin America and the world have been losing their rights," Zelaya said.

Thousands of Zelaya opponents demonstrated in San Pedro Sula, the country's second-largest city.

An equal number of supporters flocked to the border to support Zelaya's return, and soldiers manned checkpoints on highways leading to the border area to prevent them from getting to El Paraiso. Some made their way on foot after bus drivers refused to risk the trip.

The government said the border curfew was intended to preserve the peace, but by late afternoon authorities did not appear to be enforcing it.

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.

But Washington and the Organization of American States have asked Zelaya to be patient and not return on his own, fearing it would plunge the country into chaos.

"President Zelaya's effort to reach the border is reckless," Clinton said in Washington.

She said it would not help restore democratic and constitutional order in Honduras.

An initial attempt to fly home on July 5 was frustrated when officials blocked the runway of the Honduran capital's airport.

Honduras' Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's arrest before the coup because he ignored court orders to drop plans for a referendum on whether to form a constitutional assembly. The military decided to send Zelaya into exile instead.

The negotiations stalled after neither side accepted a proposal from Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the chief mediator. Arias called for Zelaya's reinstatement, amnesty for the coup leaders and early elections.

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