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Ousted Honduras president builds support for return

Manuel Zelaya addresses the U.N. General Assembly, but in Honduras, the de facto leaders say he will be arrested if he comes back. Crowds in Tegucigalpa rally on both sides.

July 01, 2009|Alex Renderos and Tracy Wilkinson

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS, AND MEXICO CITY — Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Tuesday continued to build support for his return home, but the country's de facto rulers said he'd be arrested the minute he set foot on national territory.

As Zelaya addressed a supportive United Nations audience in New York, Hondurans in Tegucigalpa were demonstrating against and, in smaller numbers, in favor of the deposed leftist leader. Zelaya was flown to exile in Costa Rica early Sunday after soldiers removed him from his home.

Honduran Atty. Gen. Luis Alberto Rubi, who clashed frequently with Zelaya, said Tuesday that arrest warrants had been issued accusing Zelaya of 18 crimes, including treason and abuse of authority. Rubi said Honduran authorities would ask Interpol to detain Zelaya, who has said he plans to return to Honduras on Thursday with a delegation of regional heads of state and other officials.

"The justice tribunals of my country have issued orders to capture [Zelaya] because he broke laws," said Roberto Micheletti, the former head of Congress whom legislators chose to replace Zelaya.

The Obama administration has joined regional leaders in condemning the coup, and U.S. officials said Tuesday that they had severed contacts with the Honduran military. Washington, which has maintained close ties with the military for decades, will consider cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, officials said. That would require the administration to formally label Zelaya's ouster a military coup.

In Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, several thousand opponents of Zelaya filled a downtown square waving blue-and-white Honduran flags and denouncing Zelaya's ties to Latin American leftists, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Repeatedly invoking God and fatherland, Micheletti thanked his followers "united here to protect democracy" and pledged to go ahead with the presidential election scheduled for the end of November.

He clasped the hand of Gen. Romeo Vasquez, the jowly, camouflage-clad army chief whom Zelaya had tried to fire, and raised their arms overhead in a sign of victory. Micheletti said army officers were heroes for seizing Zelaya from his bedroom Sunday morning and bundling him away, still in his pajamas.

"It wasn't a coup!" the crowd chanted.

"Democracy, yes! Communism, no!"

Most of the wrath seemed directed more at Chavez than at Zelaya. Chavez is seen as a heavy-handed bully by many in the region, and his growing alliance with Zelaya made many Hondurans fear that their country was being pulled to the radical left.

"I'm surprised that Barack Obama is not better informed," retired Col. Natanael Guevara, 56, said, referring to U.S. condemnation of the coup. "If Honduras falls, Central America falls and then Mexico. I'm ready to put my uniform back on if it means defending my country from Hugo Chavez."

Guevara was in the crowd rallying in support of the new provisional government. Wendy Marisela Rodriguez, a young mother who runs a small shop, was also there.

"Hugo Chavez wants to rule here and indoctrinate our children," she said.

Meanwhile, major labor unions, which support Zelaya, declared open-ended strikes. Pro-Zelaya demonstrators staged a small march, a day after groups clashed violently with army and police forces.

Zelaya had angered the army, the courts and Congress -- including his own party -- by trying to change the constitution to allow the reelection of the president (a tactic employed by Chavez to remain in office). He was seven months shy of the conclusion of his own, tumultuous four-year term.

Critics accuse Zelaya, a 56-year-old rancher and logging tycoon who favors white cowboy hats, of frequently flouting the law.

Enrique Ortez, the foreign minister appointed by Micheletti, told CNN's Spanish-language network that Zelaya had also been allowing planes from Venezuela to fly cocaine through Honduran airspace to the U.S. He offered no proof. Honduras, like its neighbors, is an important transshipment point for drugs headed north.

Zelaya was unpopular at home, with approval ratings recently almost as bad as those of President George W. Bush during his final months in office. But the coup has been condemned almost universally outside Honduras, including by unanimous vote Tuesday by the U.N. General Assembly.

Shortly before hearing Zelaya speak, the body approved a resolution calling for his reinstatement without conditions.

Other pressure on the impoverished, conservative country included a World Bank decision to freeze lending programs. Neighboring countries suspended trade.

Zelaya told the General Assembly that he would abandon the referendum he had been attempting to use to promote changes in the constitution, and that he would return to private life at the end of his term.

Although he has said before that he has no plans to seek a way to be reelected, making the pledge before an international audience might have been a bid to reassure his foreign supporters and ensure his reinstatement.

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