Exiled Honduran Leader Vows Return for Showdown

By: AP
By: AP
Honduras braced for confrontation Sunday as ousted President Manuel Zelaya insisted he was coming home to reclaim his post, urging his supporters to mass at the airport for a showdown with the interim government in power since the army sent him into exile a week ago.

** CORRECTS PHOTOGRAPHER'S BYLINE TO FERNANDO ANTONIO ** A demonstrator, with a Honduran flag on his shoulders, stands next to a bonfire near to the presidential house in Tegucigalpa, Monday, June 29, 2009. Honduras' new leaders defied growing global pressure on Monday to reverse a military coup, arguing that they had followed their constitution in removing President Manuel Zelaya. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- Honduras braced for confrontation Sunday as ousted President Manuel Zelaya insisted he was coming home to reclaim his post, urging his supporters to mass at the airport for a showdown with the interim government in power since the army sent him into exile a week ago.

The poor Central American country's Roman Catholic archbishop urged Zelaya to stay away, warning that his return could spark bloodshed. The interim government stuck to its threat to arrest Zelaya and put him on trial despite near-universal international condemnation of the coup that removed him over his campaign to revise the constitution.

In Washington, the Organization of American States suspended Honduras as a member late Saturday, but Zelaya's replacement, Roberto Micheletti, already pulled the country out of the group over its ultimatum to restore Zelaya.

As more than 10,000 of his supporters protested Saturday near the heavily guarded presidential palace, Zelaya posted an audio message on the Internet urging loyalists to greet his arrival.

"We are going to show up at the Honduras International Airport in Tegucigalpa ... and on Sunday we will be in Tegucigalpa," Zelaya said in the taped statement carried Saturday on the Web sites of the Telesur and Cubadebate media outlets.

He implored supporters to remain peaceful.

"I ask all farmers, residents, Indians, young people and all workers' groups, businessmen and friends ... to accompany me on my return to Honduras," he said. "Do not bring weapons. Practice what I have always preached, which is nonviolence. Let them be the ones who use violence, weapons and repression."

"I hold the coup plotters responsible for the lives of each and every person," he said.

In comments to a local radio station, Zelaya said he would be accompanied by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, several foreign ministers and 300 journalists.

But Fernandez said only that "it's been agreed that the OAS will accompany" Zelaya on the trip, as she exited the diplomatic meeting in Washington.

Catholic Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez implored Zelaya not to confront the interim government amid the high tensions, saying in a statement broadcast Saturday that "your return to the country could unleash a bloodbath."

The country's new government has vowed to arrest Zelaya if he returns, on charges alleging 18 criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since taking office in 2006.

Large crowds of Zelaya's critics have countered his supporters by staging their own daily demonstrations to back Micheletti, the congressional president who was named by lawmakers to finish out the final six months of the Zelaya's term.

Most of the ousted leader's supporters come from the working and middle classes of this impoverished nation, while his opponents are based in the ranks of the well-to-do - although the increasingly leftist approach of the wealthy rancher had eroded his popular support.

The military ousted Zelaya with the backing of Honduras' political elite, including the Supreme Court, Congress and Zelaya's own party. They say they kicked him out because he insisted on going through with a referendum on constitutional change that the Supreme Court ruled illegal.

Last Sunday's coup brought widespread criticism down on the Micheletti government, from U.S. President Barack Obama to Venezuela's leftist leader Hugo Chavez to the U.N. and the OAS.

Seeking to head off any escalation of the crisis, the OAS gave the Honduran government until Saturday to reinstate Zelaya, but Micheletti pointedly rejected the demand Friday night. "The OAS is a political organization, not a court, and it can't judge us," he said.

At the OAS's second emergency on Honduras in less than a week, the group's secretary-general told the meeting Saturday night that his visit to Honduras in a bid to restore Zelaya to the presidency had failed.

"It is very clear that in the de facto government, there is no willingness to change its conduct," Jose Miguel Insulza said in urging Honduras' suspension.

Thirty-three nations voted for the suspension, with Honduras abstaining. It was the first time the OAS suspended a member nation over a military coup since 1990, when Haiti was punished for Gen. Raoul Cedras' putsch against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Billboards proclaiming Micheletti the "legitimate and constitutional" president have begun to pop up, as have bumper stickers proclaiming "I love Honduras. I defend the constitution." The interim government has also taken to the radio and television airwaves with jingles, part of a campaign to win over those who have yet to choose sides.

"I'm just waiting for the military and the politicians to decide what happens to us," retiree Hilda Alvarez said Saturday. "I hope it's soon.


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