Ousted Zelaya crosses into Honduras, briefly
Fri Jul 24, 2009 9:58pm EDT
9:27pm EDTBy Ivan Castro and Sean Mattson
LAS MANOS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Ousted President Manuel Zelaya, vowing to return to power, took a symbolic step inside Honduras on Friday but quickly stepped back across the border again to avoid being arrested.
Accompanied by a pack of international reporters and television cameras, the ousted leader in his trademark cowboy hat took a step or two inside Honduran territory in the small town of Las Manos on the border with Nicaragua.
Pausing to give live telephone interviews, he approached the chain dividing the two central American nations, stepping briefly over and holding the chain over his head in triumph for a moment before returning to the Nicaraguan side.
The leftist president was toppled and sent into exile in a June 28 coup after angering critics over his alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States.
The de facto government that replaced him insists he was removed legally and will face charges if he returns.
The U.S. government has backed a Costa Rican plan to end the crisis which calls for Zelaya to return, but advised him not to enter Honduras without a political deal in place.
"We obviously would not support any action that would precipitate violence and we understand that President Zelaya actually plans to come to Washington on Tuesday, you know, for further discussions," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
"We have said to President Zelaya on a number of occasions that right now we think the focus should remain on the current negotiating and mediation effort of (Costa Rican) President Oscar Arias, and that any return to Honduras would be premature."
Talks this week in Costa Rica about the standoff -- Central America's worst political crisis in 20 years -- appear to have fallen apart, raising the threat of violence inside Honduras.
Ignoring calls not to provoke tension, Zelaya left the Nicaraguan town of Esteli on Friday driving a jeep.
"We have to reverse this coup and I plan to do it peacefully. With my presence in Honduras, the people will surround me and the soldiers will lower their rifles," Zelaya said in Nicaragua before going to the border.
When he tried to fly home earlier this month one of his supporters was killed in clashes near the airport.
Honduran troops and police imposed a curfew near the border with Nicaragua on Friday, warning they would not be responsible for people caught up in any violence. Police in riot gear waited a short distance over the border and a helicopter flew overhead as Zelaya approached.
The ousted president, a logging magnate who draws support from unions and other leftists, called his family from the border, saying "I am on the Honduran side," witnesses said.
Earlier, security forces fired tear gas at dozens of pro-Zelaya supporters trying to reach the border to greet the president near the coffee town of El Paraiso. Most of Zelaya's supporters were kept several miles (kilometers) back.
The United States and Latin American governments have demanded Zelaya's reinstatement but Honduras' de facto leader Roberto Micheletti insists he will be detained for violating the constitution and other charges if he returns.
"The return of ex-president Zelaya isn't possible because it would be illegal and we have to respect the law," he told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.
The Honduran Congress will meet on Monday to discuss a proposal by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to end the crisis. It is likely to reject a demand to reinstate Zelaya, mistrusted by the ruling elite which accuses him of trying to extend presidential term limits.
U.S. President Obama has condemned the coup, cut $16.5 million in military aid and threatened to slash economic aid. Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America and a coffee exporter, could be hard hit by any further sanctions.
Zelaya's approval rating had fallen to about 30 percent but many in the poor countryside still support him.
(Additional reporting by Marco Aquino and Esteban Israel in Honduras and Ivan Castro in Nicaragua and Sue Pleming in Washington, Writing by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Kieran Murray)