Zelaya Rallies Small Band of Supporters

Honduras' President Manuel Zelaya greets supporters in Las Manos, Nicaragua, Saturday, July 25, 2009. Honduras' coup-installed government has ordered people off the streets along its border with Nicaragua as the ousted President Zelaya prepares to return home. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
AP Photo/Esteban Felix
Ensconced in the mountains near Honduras, ousted President Manuel Zelaya struggled Monday to galvanize poor farmers, teachers and street activists into a movement strong enough to overcome his foes and sweep him back into office.

Military checkpoints kept all but a few hundred supporters from reaching the Nicaraguan town of Ocotal, where Zelaya parked his government-in-exile last week in a bid to keep up the pressure on Honduras' coup-installed leaders. Dozens of people camping behind the military blockades inside Honduras gave up Monday and started trickling home.

Many of those who made it to Nicaragua wondered how long they could hold out, tired of sleeping on foam mattresses, forgoing showers and waiting for Zelaya to come up with a plan. Zelaya has vowed to remain on the border for at least a week, but hasn't announced any concrete strategy since he walked a few meters into Honduras and then retreated Friday.

The crowd, housed in two shelters in Ocotal, spent Monday in disarray. They boarded buses for a drive to the frontier line, only to turn back when they realized Zelaya had no plans to join them. The ousted president showed up at one of the camps to address his supporters, only to find they had left for the border.

"We're waiting for Mel Zelaya to give the order, and we'll go with him," said Tomas Lopez, 57, an athletics teacher who traveled 375 miles to Nicaragua, leaving his family in Honduras. "I'm the head of the family, and they depend on me. We have food here and a place to sleep, but the problem is our children. Who is going to support them?"

Later, Zelaya rallied about 400 people sheltering in a gymnasium, urging them to be patient. But he offered no details about his plans, instead launching a denunciation of Honduras' grinding poverty and the concentration of wealth among a few families. His aides handed out lunches of chicken and beef with tortillas.

The interim government that ousted Zelaya said Monday it had seized a series of what appear to be receipts from a key Zelaya organizer, indicating payments of between $3,000 and $20,000 to several protest leaders. None of the Zelaya supporters were immediately available to comment on the alleged payments or what they were for.

Zelaya's supporters - a loose coalition of farmers, teachers, public sector unions and one small leftist party - have staged near daily protests in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, including 3,000 teachers who blocked an avenue Monday.

A month after the June 28 coup, the demonstrations have failed to become more than a minor inconvenience for interim President Roberto Micheletti and the formidable forces that support him: the military, business executives, Supreme Court and almost the entire Congress, including many in Zelaya's own party.

Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who adopted a left-leaning populist agenda after his election, has received overwhelming support from nearly all foreign governments, which have condemned the coup and isolated the Micheletti government diplomatically.

But Zelaya complained that international mediation efforts to force his return have flagged. He accused the United States - Honduras' largest source of development aid and its biggest trade partner - of not being forceful enough against Micheletti, who has ignored sanctions threats and U.N. demands that Zelaya be reinstated.

"They need to be firmer, especially the statements from the United States," Zelaya said Sunday night. "There should be stronger signals, and they should denounce the atrocities being committed in Honduras and put themselves on the sign of the people."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly urged Zelaya to be patient and give negotiations more time. He reiterated Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's criticism that Zelaya was being "reckless" in trying to return to Honduran without an agreement with his opponents.

"We're continuing to urge President Zelaya to allow this political process to play out," Kelly said. "We're not going to put any artificial deadline on it, though."

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the chief mediator, proposed a plan last week that would restore Zelaya as the president of a coalition government, offer amnesty to both him and the coup leaders and hold elections a month early on Oct. 28.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez said the ousted president would not be allowed to return. Micheletti has indicated he would be willing to resign in favor of a compromise, interim president, but not Zelaya.

A congressional committee is expected to discuss a possible amnesty for Zelaya - part of Arias' proposal - on Thursday.

But Lopez said the interim government is ready to hold out for five months, until a Nov. 29 election that is to replace Zelaya, whose term ends Jan. 27. He expressed confidence that other nations would recognize the results of the vote.

"The people are united and are willing to weather the five months until the elections," Lopez said.

The interim government insists it cannot accept any deal that would restore Zelaya to the presidency because that would violate a Supreme Court ruling ordering his arrest and a congressional vote removing him from office. Interim leaders have vowed to arrest Zelaya if he sets foot in his homeland on four charges of violating the constitution.

All charges stem from Zelaya ignoring a Supreme Court order and attempting to hold a referendum asking Hondurans if they want a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Many people felt he wanted to jettison the constitutional provision that limits presidents to a single term, although Zelaya denied it.