- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Obama administration Tuesday for the first time urged ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya not to return to his country, asking him to wait until negotiations headed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias have a chance to work.

Mr. Arias’ role as a mediator was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, after she spoke with him by telephone and met with Mr. Zelaya at the State Department.

“He is willing to serve as a mediator, and we have received word that the de facto caretaker president, [Roberto] Micheletti, will also agree to President Arias serving in this role,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We hope that this process can begin as soon as possible.”

Mr. Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping to end the civil war in El Salvador, will conduct the negotiations in Costa Rica, Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Zelaya tried to land in Honduras late Sunday, but the runway was blocked by troops loyal to Mr. Micheletti. The confrontation led to violent clashes between supporters of the two leaders, in which at least one person was killed.

Mrs. Clinton said she had advised Mr. Zelaya to change tactics and start a dialogue with his opponents.

“I believe it is a better route for him to follow at this time than to attempt to return in the face of the implacable opposition of the de facto regime,” she said. “And so instead of another confrontation that might result in the loss of life, let’s try the dialogue process and see where that leads, and let’s let the parties determine all the various issues as they should.”

Mr. Zelaya was forced out of Honduras on June 28 because of what his opponents said would have been an illegal attempt to call a referendum to allow him to stay in office for another four-year term. The Obama administration, as well as the Organization of American States, condemned the apparent coup and called for the “full restoration of democracy.”

Although Mr. Zelaya did not appear at Mrs. Clinton’s briefing for reporters after their meeting, he later told Honduran radio that the first meeting in Costa Rica has been scheduled for Thursday.

In his own radio interview, Mr. Micheletti said he and his supporters still think that Mr. Zelaya “should not return,” because “he committed crimes and must pay for them.”

Mrs. Clinton declined to say what arrangements may be made during the talks. In private, officials said that one option is for Mr. Zelaya to complete his term, which expires in January, but agree not to seek to prolong it.

“Now that we have a mediation process that we hope can begin shortly, I don’t want to prejudge what the parties themselves will agree to,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There are many different issues that will have to be discussed and resolved.”

The status of the U.S. and Honduran ambassadors in the country’s respective capitals also needs to be addressed, the secretary added.

“We are obviously going to be guided by the appropriateness of whether to leave our ambassador there going forward,” she said. “President Zelaya believes that he’s playing a useful role, so we do not want to abridge that if it could be value-added to this mediation process.”

The crisis has brought together some strange bedfellows, including the U.S. and Venezuela, whose anti-U.S. leader, Hugo Chavez, has been close to Mr. Zelaya.

In Moscow, President Obama said he supports “the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies.”

“America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country,” he said.

“We do so not because we agree with him,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Zelaya. “We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.”

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