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Honduran troops break up protests at the refuge of ousted President Manuel Zelaya

As Zelaya holes up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, forces fire tear gas to scatter his supporters.

September 23, 2009|Ken Ellingwood and Alex Renderos

MEXICO CITY AND SAN SALVADOR — Honduran forces toting batons and tear gas Tuesday scattered supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, as he holed up for a second day in an embassy in that nation's capital, Tegucigalpa.

The city was largely shuttered and its airport closed amid a nationwide curfew that was imposed by Honduras' de facto government Monday after Zelaya slipped back into the country and took shelter in the Brazilian Embassy.

There were no reports of serious injuries after helmeted troops and police fired tear gas to scatter pro-Zelaya demonstrators. At least two tear gas canisters were reported to have landed inside the embassy compound.

Television images showed young men hurling rocks at police. Authorities said they had arrested more than 170 people since Monday, many for violating the curfew.

Zelaya's return to the Honduran capital injects a combustible new ingredient into a country deeply polarized three months after the army took him from his home at gunpoint and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Zelaya said he hoped for a breakthrough in the political crisis. His move appeared timed to garner maximum international attention as world leaders gathered in New York for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Much of the international community called for calm.

In New York, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he had spoken with Zelaya early Tuesday and urged him "to be very careful" not to give Honduran authorities a reason to storm the embassy.

Lula repeated calls for the interim president, Roberto Micheletti, and the rest of the replacement government to step aside, while defending Brazil's decision to shelter Zelaya.

"Brazil only did what any democratic country should do," Lula said.

In Washington, the State Department urged the de facto Honduran government to heed international laws that safeguard foreign embassies. "The United States calls on all parties to remain calm and avoid actions that might provoke violence," spokesman Ian Kelly said.

Soldiers took up positions near the embassy, but there was no immediate sign that Honduras' rulers were considering seizing Zelaya, an action sure to inflame domestic tensions and draw international condemnation.

Electricity, water and phone service were cut off at the embassy, where Zelaya and his wife hunkered down with about 70 people, the Associated Press reported. A Red Cross spokeswoman in Tegucigalpa said by telephone late Tuesday that streets were quiet, though some people defied the curfew.

Micheletti told Reuters news agency that his government officials and security forces had no plans to enter the embassy and that Zelaya could stay there for "five to 10 years" if he wanted.

The interim president was quoted in Honduran news reports as saying he was open to dialogue with "serious and responsible" interlocutors. Defense Minister Adolfo Lionel Sevilla said in a telephone interview that the military would support such talks.

Micheletti at first denied that Zelaya had reentered the country, then promised that he would be placed under arrest if he had returned. He called on Brazil to hand over Zelaya, who faces charges of abuse of authority, treason and other offenses listed on a warrant by the Honduran Supreme Court.

Zelaya was overthrown June 28 after he refused to scrap plans for a referendum that had been ruled illegal by Honduran courts. Foes said Zelaya planned to use the nonbinding vote to pave the way for a second term as president, in violation of the Honduran Constitution.

Micheletti says that Zelaya was removed legally, but no nation has recognized the de facto regime.

"My country is in an unusual position this week," Micheletti wrote in an article published Tuesday in the Washington Post. "Former president Manuel Zelaya has surreptitiously returned to Honduras, still claiming to be the country's legitimate leader, despite the fact that a constitutional succession took place on June 28."

Honduras plans a presidential election on Nov. 29. The United States and other nations have said they won't recognize the outcome if the crisis remains unresolved. Candidates representing both main political forces, including Zelaya's Liberal Party, called for a negotiated end to the standoff.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has proposed letting Zelaya return to office with reduced authority until a new chief executive takes over in January. Zelaya has accepted the proposal, known as the San Jose Accord, but Micheletti has rejected it.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Renderos is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.

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