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Honduran army blocks runway to keep Zelaya out

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya enters Honduran airspace but says his plane was unable to land in Tegucigalpa. His supporters gathered at the airport clash with police; one child is reported killed.

July 06, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson and Alex Renderos

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ousted a week ago in a military coup, failed Sunday in his attempt to return home to reclaim power, his flight forced to detour after the nation's de facto rulers said it could not land here and placed army trucks on the runway.

Thousands of Zelaya's supporters, pressing toward the heavily guarded Tegucigalpa airport in hopes of greeting him, reacted with anger and clashed with soldiers and police who pushed them back.

Troops lined the landing strips and snipers took up positions on the roof of the terminal, which was shut Sunday afternoon after most commercial flights were canceled. Protesters hurled rocks and debris over fences toward the police. Witnesses reported one death and several injuries after security forces fired tear gas and what appeared to be live rounds at people attempting to force their way onto the airport grounds. Military aircraft patrolled overhead.

As Zelaya's plane approached Honduran airspace, he spoke live with a Venezuelan television station, saying he couldn't land.

"They are threatening us, saying we'll be intercepted, that they'll put things on the runway if we try to land," Zelaya told Telesur TV by telephone. "They have blocked our landing."

He said he was speaking from the cockpit alongside the pilots.

"They're doing everything they can to land," he said. But it was a lost cause. Honduran military vehicles could be seen scattered along the runway.

Zelaya's detour to Nicaragua -- he ultimately was expected in neighboring El Salvador -- capped a long day of suspense and uncertainty as the deposed president insisted he would return to Honduras, and his foes just as adamantly said they'd block him. Reporters, imagining scenarios of scrambled fighter jets and mid-tarmac arrests, stalked the airport, as befuddled luggage-toting passengers (including one group of Christian missionaries from South Carolina) stepped past phalanxes of police to learn their flights had been canceled.

In Washington, U.S. officials said earlier in the day that if Zelaya could not reach Tegucigalpa, he was expected to return to the U.S. capital today for further strategizing. But Zelaya suggested he might remain in Central America and make another effort to return.

Despite the tense standoff, the de facto Honduran government signaled a willingness Sunday to hold "dialogue" with the Organization of American States, the day after the group punished the impoverished country with a rare suspension. Acting Honduran President Roberto Micheletti said he was appointing a delegation to reach out to the OAS, which does not recognize him as chief executive. However, any talks will not address the international community's central demand, the reinstatement of Zelaya, said the de facto foreign minister, Enrique Ortez.

"What is not up for discussion is that Honduras has any other president" besides Micheletti, Ortez said.

The leftist Zelaya had clashed with Congress, the courts and the military by pushing ahead with a nonbinding referendum that had been ruled illegal. He was taken from his home by soldiers last Sunday and deported to Costa Rica, the first coup in Central America in 16 years.

One showdown Sunday was in the air, in Zelaya's attempt to fly home; the other was on the ground, where one of the most violent days yet unfolded.

Huge crowds of Zelaya supporters began converging on the airport starting around midday and remained fairly peaceful as they surged closer to security forces ringing the facility. As tensions rose and rumors spread that Zelaya would not be allowed to land, witnesses said, groups of youths began hurling rocks and bottles at security forces and attempted to scale a fence into the airfield.

The Red Cross reported that one person, about 19, was killed and that seven others were wounded.

The acting government imposed a 6:30 p.m. curfew, 3 1/2 hours earlier than the one in place after the coup.

Honduras blocked international cable television channels from broadcasting the clashes with a synchronized transmission of Micheletti's news conference from earlier in the day.

In that appearance, Micheletti claimed that troops from Nicaragua, whose president, Daniel Ortega, is allied with Zelaya, were mobilizing at Honduras' border. Pressed about the claim, Micheletti said that in fact, the groups of soldiers were small, might be acting without authorization and were not very close to the border after all. Ortega, speaking from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, emphatically denied any mobilization.

Alfredo San Martin, head of the civilian aviation authority in Tegucigalpa, said Zelaya's Venezuelan-registered plane was never going to be allowed to land in Honduras. Rather than attempt to intercept the jet in flight, Honduran security forces would surround it on the ground if it touched down and arrest everyone on board, San Martin said.

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