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Ousted Honduras leader to meet with Clinton

President Manuel Zelaya, deposed in a coup, says he will try again to return to Honduras, but this time overland. Representatives of the nation's de facto government are also going to Washington.

July 07, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — One day after the Honduran military prevented him from landing at his capital's airport, ousted President Manuel Zelaya said he would meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington -- then take another run at going home.

The session with Clinton, scheduled for today, would be the highest-level contact by the Obama administration with the leftist leader, who was deposed in a coup just over a week ago.

American officials have said they hope Zelaya's U.S. visit, along with that of a group of representatives of the de facto Honduran government that replaced him, signals a willingness to start negotiations to end the standoff.

But a close associate indicated that Zelaya would say in Washington that he would try to return to Honduras again as early as Wednesday, this time entering overland through a border crossing.

"This time he won't fly into the lion's mouth," said Luis Roland Valenzuela, a congressman and member of Zelaya's Cabinet, most of which is in hiding or outside the country. Valenzuela accused the de facto government of blocking Zelaya's plane from landing on Sunday after having originally given the OK to land. The government says Zelaya never asked for permission.

Speaking Monday in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, Zelaya confirmed that he planned to take another stab at returning to Honduras, though he was mum on the details. His mistake Sunday, he said, was telling the government ahead of time.

"Have no doubt, I will return to Honduras," he told reporters. "But I won't say how, because otherwise they will wait for me in any town or state."

In a dramatic midair showdown, the Venezuelan-registered and -piloted aircraft, with Zelaya sitting alongside the pilots in the cockpit, circled Tegucigalpa's Toncontin airport as thousands of the deposed president's supporters on the ground cheered his return. When they realized he couldn't land because government troops had blocked the runaway, some tried to breach airport fencing and clashed with security forces.

Witnesses said soldiers or police opened fire on the crowd. At least one person, the 19-year-old son of a farmer, was killed.

"It was a monstrosity for the armed forces to shoot at their own people," said Alejandra Zelaya (no relation to the president), 28, one of the demonstrators. "But we are going to keep at it until the president returns."

Manuel Zelaya's supporters held a smaller march Monday, and organizers said they would disperse further demonstrations into the countryside. Anti-Zelaya protesters, meanwhile, planned to convoke a huge rally of their own today.

In the wake of the violence and with lingering suspicions that Zelaya still might be in the skies, Honduran authorities kept the airport closed and heavily guarded Monday.

Valenzuela said that to avert violence, Zelaya would try to slip into the country quietly, but was prepared to "submit to the nation's laws." Acting President Roberto Micheletti has said he holds an arrest warrant with Zelaya's name on it.

Micheletti, speaking Monday night in a national broadcast, said he welcomed Clinton's decision to meet with Zelaya but reminded her that Zelaya had broken the law and "has to be held accountable."

If Zelaya again attempts to return to Honduras, it would complicate the intensifying efforts by U.S. and Latin American diplomats to ease the crisis. While support for Zelaya's return to power is unanimous in the international community, some countries have warned that the timing is not right and have suggested that it would be more prudent to reach a compromise first.

The delegation sent by Micheletti could also prove problematic because U.S. officials cannot meet with members of a government Washington does not recognize as legitimate, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.

Kelly added that the Obama administration "deplored the use of force against demonstrators" in Tegucigalpa and called on "the de facto regime and all actors in Honduras to refrain from all acts of violence." He reiterated that the U.S. goal was to restore "the democratic order" in Honduras and see "the return of the democratically elected president."

But after months of tension and tumult, Zelaya and his foes remain far apart. Possible solutions include allowing Zelaya to return to office if he drops plans to try to change the constitution and swears to step down when his term ends in January. Or he could return and resign in a deal in which he is granted immunity.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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