- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras’ exiled president flew toward home in a Venezuelan jet in a high-stakes attempt to return to power on Sunday, even as the interim government ordered the military to turn away the plane.

Deposed President Manuel Zelaya won wide international support after his military ouster a week ago, but the only prominent escort aboard his plane was the U.N. General Assembly president after Latin American leaders backed out, citing security concerns.

“I am the commander of the armed forces, elected by the people, and I ask the armed forces to comply with the order to open the airport so that there is no problem in landing and embracing with my people,” Mr. Zelaya said while en route.

But interim President Roberto Micheletti refused to withdraw his order to prevent the plane from landing, and refused to negotiate with anyone until “things return to normal.”

“We will be here until the country calms down,” Mr. Micheletti told a news conference. “We are the authentic representatives of the people.”

Thousands of protesters descended on the airport in the Honduran capital in anticipation of the showdown, some of them pressing against several hundred soldiers with riot shields. Police helicopters hovered overhead, and commercial flights were canceled.

Mr. Micheletti also alleged that Nicaragua is moving troops to its border in an attempt at psychological intimidation, and warned them not to cross into Honduras, “because we’re ready to defend our border.” A spokesman for Nicaragua’s army called his allegation “totally false.”

Honduras’ civil aviation director said Mr. Zelaya’s plane was ordered not to enter Honduran air space.

Several other planes carrying Latin American presidents, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States and journalists were leaving Washington separately, trailing Mr. Zelaya to see what happens in the skies over Honduras before deciding where to land.

Flying with Mr. Zelaya were close advisers and staff, two journalists from the Venezuela-based network Telesur, and U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a leftist Nicaraguan priest and former foreign minister who personally condemned Mr. Zelaya’s ouster as a coup d’etat.

The Telesur crew enabled Mr. Zelaya to speak in a live interview from the air. “No one can obligate me to turn around. The constitution prohibits expelling Hondurans from the country. I am returning with all of my constitutional guarantees,” Mr. Zelaya declared.

But with their safety not guaranteed, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa pleaded with the Honduran military forces to avoid bloodshed. “If there is violence, the whole world must clearly know who is responsible,” he said.

If Mr. Zelaya’s plane is allowed to land, the others will land as well, Mr. Correa said. If not, Mr. Correa, the presidents of Paraguay and Argentina, and Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, planned to land in El Salvador.

Honduras’ new government has vowed to arrest Mr. Zelaya for 18 alleged criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since taking office in 2006.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Zelaya also had pressed ahead with a referendum on whether to hold an assembly to consider changing the constitution, and critics feared he would press to extend his rule.

But by sending soldiers to shoot up the presidential residence and fly Mr. Zelaya into exile a week ago, the Micheletti government has brought itself universal condemnations from the United Nations and OAS.

No nation has recognized the new government; President Obama has united with conservative Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and leftist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in criticism.

The OAS had given the Honduran government until Saturday to reinstate Mr. Zelaya and sent two emergency missions to Honduras in hopes of heading off an escalation. But Mr. Micheletti pointedly rejected the group’s demands.

The poor Central American country’s Roman Catholic archbishop and its human right commissioner urged Mr. Zelaya to stay away, warning that his return could spark bloodshed. The interim government said it would arrest Mr. Zelaya and put him on trial despite near-universal international condemnation of the coup that removed him as he campaigned to revise the constitution.

The OAS suspended Honduras as a member late Saturday. Mr. Micheletti pre-emptively pulled out of the organization hours earlier rather than comply with an ultimatum that Mr. Zelaya be restored.

Mr. Zelaya has urged loyalists to support his arrival in Honduras in a peaceful show of force.

“We are going to show up at the Honduras International Airport in Tegucigalpa … and on Sunday we will be in Tegucigalpa,” Mr. Zelaya said Saturday in the taped statement carried on the Web sites of the Telesur and Cubadebate media outlets. “Practice what I have always preached, which is nonviolence.”

Zelaya supporters said they got the message as they converged on the airport.

“We have no pistols or arms, just our principles,” organizer Rafael Alegria said. “We have the legitimate right to fight for the defense of democracy and to restore President Zelaya.”

Large crowds of Mr. Zelaya’s critics have staged their own daily demonstrations to back Mr. Micheletti, the congressional president who was named by lawmakers to finish out the final six months of Mr. Zelaya’s term.

Most of the ousted leader’s supporters come from the working and middle classes of this impoverished nation, while his opponents are based in the ranks of the well-to-do — although the increasingly leftist approach of the wealthy rancher had eroded his popular support.

Will Weissert reported from Tegucigalpa and Nestor Ikeda from Washington. Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas and Marcos Aleman in Tegucigalpa and Jorge Barrera and Michael Bodenhurst in Washington contributed to this report.

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