TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — The man who replaced President Manuel Zelaya in a coup said Thursday that he would be willing to hold elections ahead of schedule if that would ease the standoff, which has left Honduras badly isolated.
The offer from Roberto Micheletti came on the eve of a high-level visit by a delegation of the Organization of American States aimed at sealing Zelaya's return to office -- or deciding on sanctions to punish the impoverished nation.
Micheletti has repeatedly said that Zelaya, who was dragged from his residence by the army before dawn Sunday and sent to Costa Rica, will not be reinstated.
The suggestion to move up elections scheduled for November was a rare hint of concession.
"I would totally agree to early elections as part of a political solution," Micheletti said in one of his daily chats with journalists.
The OAS has given Honduras' acting leaders a deadline of Saturday to reinstate Zelaya, after which the country would be suspended from the regional body.
The organization's leader, Jose Miguel Insulza, who is to arrive today in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, said he had low expectations for making headway.
Demonstrations continued Thursday, including a march by thousands of Zelaya's supporters through downtown Tegucigalpa that started at the army headquarters. They painted slogans on scores of buildings, including a play on Micheletti's name, "Pinocheletti," that compares him to Augusto Pinochet, the leader of Chile's 1973 coup.
At a pro-Zelaya march in Honduras' second city, San Pedro Sula, dozens of people were reported arrested.
Honduras for decades was practically a client state of the U.S. But Washington was unable to prevent this crisis and has not been able to resolve it. After Zelaya was seized, his wife, Xiomara Castro, and their youngest son took refuge at the home of the U.S. ambassador, where they remain. The U.S. Embassy has a no-contact policy with the Micheletti faction.
Honduras' de facto leaders have imposed a curfew on the country and suspended some civil rights. Micheletti defended those steps Thursday, saying they have fostered a decline in the crime rate. "You see, it's a good thing that the army and police are in the streets," he said. "It has brought down crime."
He and other members of his provisional government refuse to describe the president's ouster as a coup, saying Zelaya was violating the constitution.
Martha Lorena Alvarado de Castro, sworn in Thursday as deputy foreign minister, said she and her allies were "absolutely surprised" by the international condemnation.
"I think there is little understanding of our reality," she said in an interview in the courtyard of the presidential palace. "What's happening in Honduras now is fabulous."