Exiled Honduran Leader "On His Way" Back

Supporters of Honduras' ousted President Manuel Zelaya protest in Tegucigalpa, July 16, 2009.
AP Photo/Fernando Antonio
A top aide said exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was heading home Thursday to set up an alternative seat of government inside the country, and will use it as his headquarters in a "final battle" against the coup leaders.

Zelaya's foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, said he is "on his way" back, but refused to say how or when he planned to enter Honduras. Zelaya's current whereabouts are unclear and the leaders who replaced him after the military sent him into exile have vowed to arrest him if he returns.

"Our president will be in Honduras at some point and some moment. He is already on his way. God protect him and the people of the Americas who are with him," Rodas told reporters in La Paz, Bolivia, where she joined a meeting of leftist presidents.

"The establishment and installation of an alternative seat of government will be to direct what I will call the final battle" against leaders of the coup that toppled Zelaya, she said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - an ally of Zelaya - said he had spoken with Zelaya and the exiled leader told him: "I don't know if I will die, but I'm going to Honduras."

Delegations representing Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti are expected to join a second round of talks Saturday under the guidance of Oscar Arias, the Costa Rican president who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation efforts that helped resolve Central America's civil wars.

When he was last seen in public, Zelaya vowed to return if Saturday's talks don't immediately result in his reinstatement, and said Hondurans have a constitutional right to launch an insurrection against an illegitimate government.

Rodas reinforced that, saying that Zelaya's delegation has nothing to negotiate. It will simply demand that the "illegal regime surrender peacefully," and if it doesn't, Zelaya's side will declare the mediation to have failed, she said.

Prospects for finding common ground appeared slim.

Micheletti, the former congressional leader who was sworn in to serve out the final months of Zelaya's term, offered Wednesday to step down if there were guarantees that Zelaya would not return to power.

Arias said that proposal is unacceptable: "The restoration of constitutional order must involve the reinstatement of President Manuel Zelaya," he said Thursday in an interview with radio program Nuestra Voz.

Arias also said he would propose various ideas to resolve the conflict in Saturday's talks, including the creation of a government of national reconciliation and amnesties for both sides. He said people had suggested moving Honduras' elections forward, but that was no longer necessary.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged "a peaceful, negotiated resolution" of the crisis and said all involved should "refrain from actions that could result in violence." But the State Department has tried to avoid a public role in the negotiations, saying Arias is directing the efforts.

Both sides had people lobbying on their behalf in Washington. Micheletti's supporters released a statement from his foreign affairs minister, Carlos Lopez Contreras, saying Zelaya's threats to return no matter what are an affront to Arias and Clinton.

"If he comes and presents himself to authorities, he is welcome in our country. But if he comes with the intention of starting a revolutionary movement then he will find a people disposed to do anything," Micheletti said in Honduras, referring to Zelaya's return.

Rodas pleaded Thursday for stronger action. "The U.S. should suspend military aid and other support and freeze international reserves and personal and government bank accounts" to force an immediate resolution, she said.

If Zelaya does try to reenter Honduras, it would be his second attempt since masked soldiers shot up his house and flew him to Costa Rica in his pajamas early on June 28. His first attempt was thwarted July 5 when military vehicles on the runway blocked his Venezuelan plane from landing in Tegucigalpa.Micheletti spoke of rumors Wednesday that Zelaya planned to enter over the Nicaraguan border Saturday, and suggested that forces he didn't identify were "were handing out some guns" to foment rebellion. He reinstated an overnight curfew that had been lifted only days earlier.

Zelaya supporters blocking a road leading out of the capital Thursday denied they were carrying weapons.

"Check it out: there is not one machete, gun or rifle here. This is a peaceful march," said peasant leader Rafael Alegria.

Thousands have staged such protests almost daily since Zelaya's ouster, while crowds of roughly equal size have demonstrated in favor of Micheletti's government.

Supreme Court President Jorge Rivera is next in line to the presidency, after Zelaya and Micheletti. The Supreme Court had issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya, ruling that his efforts to hold a vote on whether to form a constitutional assembly were illegal. The military decided to send him into exile instead - a move that military lawyers have since acknowledged also violates the constitution.

Many Hondurans viewed the proposed vote as an attempt by Zelaya to push for a socialist transformation in the model of his ally, Venezuela's Chavez.

Rivera questioned Zelaya's expulsion from the country in an interview with La Tribuna newspaper published Thursday.

"The Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's capture and authorized the raid on his house so he could be captured," Rivera said. "The expulsion was not in the capture order, and in that sense, we have to analyze if (his expulsion) was the best thing given the necessities of the moment."

He said Zelaya should be arrested if he comes back to Honduras.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro blamed the coup in Honduras on the U.S. Embassy and other top regional diplomats appointed by George W. Bush.

In an essay published Thursday, the 82-year-old former leader wrote that the military ouster of Zelaya was the work of "unscrupulous characters of the extreme right who were trustworthy officials of George W. Bush."