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Ousted Honduran leader dips a toe across border

July 25, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson and Alex Renderos

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS, AND THE HONDURAN-NICARAGUAN BORDER — Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya pushed through a crowd made up mostly of journalists and some supporters, lifted the chain that divides Nicaragua and Honduras, and stepped into his homeland Friday, nearly a month after he was deported in a coup.

He stepped back into Nicaragua 30 minutes later.

Cheers had come from the crowd that surrounded Zelaya as he breached the border, and from other supporters who braved police tear gas, military roadblocks and a rare daytime curfew to try to reach the area and receive the leftist leader.

But opposition to Zelaya and his often provocative rule runs deep in Honduras, and the de facto government that replaced him with Roberto Micheletti as president vowed to arrest him if he entered the country. Army and police forces were deployed along the border to block Zelaya's return.

In the end, authorities said they didn't bother to arrest Zelaya because he barely entered the country, staying in the no man's land near the border. Zelaya said he was withdrawing to avoid becoming the cause of violence.

"I am not afraid, but I also am not stupid," he said.

It was a day of high theatrics staged, apparently, for multiple audiences, including the media abroad and Zelaya's increasingly dispirited followers at home. He executed a symbolic gesture to make good on his promise to return.

U.S. officials had urged Zelaya not to attempt to cross into Honduras because of the bloodshed that might ensue. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it a "reckless" action. And a State Department spokesman on Friday said Zelaya was expected in Washington on Tuesday for more talks.

Zelaya decided to go to the border after negotiations led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias broke down. Honduras' de facto rulers said they would never accept the key point of Arias' plan -- that Zelaya be allowed to finish his term ending in January -- while the ousted leader said Friday that he could not accept a plan that gave "pardon and prizes" to coup plotters. Among other points, the plan called for amnesty for coup-related crimes.

In his trademark white cowboy hat and a black leather vest, Zelaya drove a white Jeep from the northern Nicaraguan city of Esteli to the border, ahead of a long motorcade.

At the Las Manos crossing, he waded through a phalanx of television cameras and loudly chanting supporters, giving one interview after another on his cellphone.

He then approached Honduran army Lt. Col. Luis Recarte, who had been dispatched to meet him. The two shook hands.

"I come in peace," he told the officer. Zelaya said Recarte told him he could not enter the country, but Zelaya insisted and asked to speak to his commanders.

As Recarte hurried off to receive orders, Zelaya stepped several feet into Honduran territory. He walked up to a metal sign that said "Bienvenidos a Honduras" ("Welcome to Honduras") and caressed it, to more cheers.

Zelaya returned to the Nicaraguan side of the border and sat in his car to take more calls. He said he would await the arrival of his wife and children, who were making their way from Honduras' interior.

Earlier, on the Honduran side of the border, security forces clashed with Zelaya supporters. The army set up a checkpoint about six miles from the border and was stopping all traffic.

Zelaya supporters surged toward the blockade. Troops fired tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd. No serious injuries were reported.

A curfew beginning midday was imposed on the border region and was later extended for all of today. The rest of the country is under a less restrictive curfew, imposed the day after the coup.

In this deeply polarized country, another of the huge demonstrations staged to show support for Micheletti took place Friday in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

Zelaya was toppled June 28. After the Supreme Court ordered his arrest, the Honduran army removed him from his home and deported him to Costa Rica. The courts and Congress had declared Zelaya's efforts to reform the constitution illegal, and feared he would use the changes to extend his time in office. Zelaya denies that allegation.

In Washington, Clinton called on Zelaya and his opponents to focus on the Arias proposal to reach a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the crisis.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Renderos is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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