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Costa Rican to help mediate Honduras conflict

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will supervise talks between ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the officials who exiled him, Hillary Rodham Clinton announces.

July 08, 2009|Paul Richter and Tracy Wilkinson

WASHINGTON AND TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — Honduras' ousted president and the officials who exiled him have agreed to try to resolve their conflict through a U.S.-endorsed mediator, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday.

Signaling an expanding U.S. effort, Clinton said the two sides had agreed to talks supervised by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1987 for his efforts to broker peace accords in Central America.

"We call upon all parties to refrain from acts of violence and to seek a peaceful, constitutional and lasting solution to the serious divisions in Honduras through dialogue," Clinton said at the State Department after meeting with President Manuel Zelaya.

Zelaya said he planned to fly to Costa Rica to begin talks Thursday. Roberto Micheletti, president of the de facto government that has refused to allow Zelaya to reenter Honduras, also said he would travel to Costa Rica for the talks.

The new initiative represents the second diplomatic effort to resolve the dispute, after the failure of an attempt last weekend by an Organization of American States delegation to find a compromise.

The Obama administration had been reluctant to take too active a role in the first days after the late June ouster, preferring instead to give the lead to other OAS members. But both sides have been eager for the United States, which has strong economic and political ties in the impoverished country, to play a bigger part.

The two sides have delegations in Washington this week, bidding for U.S. support. A senior State Department official said U.S. officials had decided "to kick it into high gear."

While U.S. officials have been insisting that they have no top-level contacts with the de facto government, which they do not recognize, Clinton made clear that the administration had been reaching out. She said the U.S. ambassador in Honduras, Hugo Llorens, was "one of the few people who can talk to all sides."

The senior State Department official said the administration took the acceptance of the Arias mediation as a sign that the parties might be ready to talk more seriously about a compromise. Yet their words did not suggest a deal was near.

Zelaya said in a Honduran radio interview that his reinstatement was "nonnegotiable," and that the subject at the talks would be "the exit of the coup leaders."

Micheletti said that it remained the new government's position that the leftist president could not return. "We are going to dialogue, not negotiate the return of ex-President Zelaya, who can only come back if it's to face trial," Micheletti said at the presidential palace after swearing in additional members to his Cabinet.

When the Honduran army captured and deported Zelaya, it put him on a plane to Costa Rica, where he was received by Arias, who immediately condemned the coup and lent crucial, early support to the ousted president. Costa Rica has been more cautious recently, urging Zelaya not to rush his return because it could provoke bloodshed.

Zelaya's aborted attempt to fly into Tegucigalpa on Sunday, blocked when the army placed vehicles on the runway, led to riots in which at least one demonstrator was killed.

The de facto government accuses Zelaya of a litany of crimes, including abuse of power and an illegal attempt to change the constitution.

Members of the Honduran Supreme Court, which signed off on the removal of Zelaya, have begun to float the idea of granting Zelaya amnesty to allow him to return. But it was not clear Zelaya would accept such a deal since it implicitly admits guilt.

Meanwhile, in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro, rallied his supporters at a teachers college before they marched through the city. Their numbers were down from the previous day. The marchers included people with Che Guevara T-shirts, a smattering of evangelical churchgoers, teachers and others.

One demonstrator, Luis Duarte, a 36-year-old farmer, said it was up to the U.S. government to resolve the crisis and bring Zelaya home.

"We've treated the gringos very well for many years," he said, referring to decades of U.S. presence in Honduras, from banana companies to military forces. "It's time for them to help us."

President Obama, in a speech in Russia on Tuesday, said that America "supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies."

Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said a compromise deal would probably include an agreement from Zelaya to return with limited powers, and to give up office once a new president is elected. The next issue would be how to hold a fair election, he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

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