Honduras Is Rattled as Leader’s Return Is Blocked
By MARC LACEY and GINGER THOMPSON
Published: July 5, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — An airborne drama that held Honduras in suspense for most of the day ended Sunday evening with the ousted president’s plane circling over the airport here in the capital, where soldiers and riot police officers blocked the runway and used tear gas and bullets to disperse supporters who had awaited what was supposed to have been his triumphal return.
As the plane carrying the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, swept in low and made two passes over the city, cheers erupted from the crowds below. An air force jet then streaked across the sky and Mr. Zelaya’s plane flew off to Nicaragua, where he made a brief stopover before heading to El Salvador.
“The runway is blocked,” Mr. Zelaya said in an interview from the sky that was broadcast over loudspeakers to his supporters on the ground. “There is no way I can land.”
He vowed to make another attempt soon.
Despite the anticlimax of the landing efforts, diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis seemed to move forward.
Earlier in the day, the interim president in Honduras, Roberto Micheletti, said he was willing to negotiate with the Organization of American States, the group that suspended Honduras on Saturday night for ousting the president. It remained unclear whether Mr. Micheletti’s proposal represented a breakthrough, as some Obama administration officials said might be the case.
Mr. Zelaya’s return to Honduras, however, was out of the question, officials said. The leaders who expelled Mr. Zelaya in an early-morning coup last Sunday had bluntly declared that the plane carrying the deposed president and other aircraft accompanying it would be denied permission to enter Honduran air space. “If he pushes it, there will be 10,000 people on the runway to prevent him,” said Enrique Ortez, foreign minister of the caretaker government.
But Mr. Zelaya went ahead anyway. He boarded a Venezuelan plane in Washington on Sunday afternoon with the United Nations General Assembly president, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, and a small group of advisers and others. As he flew, large crowds gathered at the airport in Tegucigalpa to greet him.
When hundreds of demonstrators tried to gain access to the airport, the soldiers at one of the runways began firing. At least one protester was killed and eight people were injured, rescue officials said.
Adding to the tensions, Mr. Zelaya was giving interviews from the air as he approached Central America. “No one can obligate me to turn around,” he told Telesur, a Venezuelan network that had reporters on the plane. “The Constitution prohibits expelling Hondurans from the country. I am returning with all of my constitutional guarantees.”
The presidents of Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina as well as José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the O.A.S., were flying in a separate plane and they had plans to land only if Mr. Zelaya’s plane landed safely.
As Mr. Zelaya’s plane neared the airport, he addressed the military directly on live television, asking soldiers to return their loyalty to him “in the name of God, in the name of the people, and in the name of justice.”
But soldiers and military vehicles blocked the runway, making a landing impossible.
The flyover infuriated some members of Honduras’s air force. “That was a flagrant violation of our sovereignty by a Venezuelan aircraft,” said an air force officer who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “They entered our airspace without permission and they were flying lower than allowed. It was an act of provocation.”
Tensions were high throughout the region. Mr. Micheletti said that Nicaraguan troops had been observed near the Honduras border, which he called a provocation. He called on President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua to withdraw the troops and vowed to defend Honduran territory.
But Mr. Ortega denied in a radio interview that any troops were massing, and American officials in Washington said they lacked any information of Nicaraguan troop movements.
Even as they vowed to discuss the matter with the O.A.S., members of the new government did not back off a bit from their contention that the ouster of Mr. Zelaya by the army was legal and that under no circumstances would he be allowed to complete the final six months of his presidency.
Mr. Micheletti said he was concerned that Mr. Zelaya’s arrival in the country would cause violence. “We don’t want internal conflicts,” he said. “We don’t want bloodshed and this could be the consequence of his coming back.”
Awaiting him upon return, Mr. Micheletti said, were 18 arrest warrants for treason, abuse of authority and other charges. The new government said Mr. Zelaya had broken the law by pushing ahead, even when the courts ordered him not to, with a referendum on whether to change the Constitution. Critics feared he intended to extend his rule past January, when he would have been required to step down.
But even as Mr. Zelaya’s flight approached Honduras, a flurry of diplomatic efforts were under way to try to stop the crisis from spinning out of control.
In a possible reciprocation of the de facto government’s offer to talk, the O.A.S. shifted away from a strategy that prohibited its diplomats from speaking with Mr. Micheletti. For the first time, officials indicated that the organization would open direct channels of communication.
In a telephone interview, a senior Obama administration official said that the United States, worried about the worsening tensions on the streets of Honduras, was also beginning its own diplomatic efforts, in coordination with the O.A.S., to get the negotiations with the de facto government moving sooner rather than later. The officials would not give details of their efforts.
“This is an extremely difficult and delicate situation,” the senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, “and from our point of view, speed is of the essence.”
Marc Lacey reported from Tegucigalpa, and Ginger Thompson from Washington.