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Honduras showdown: In the air and on the airwaves

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya flew over Honduras international airport Sunday, but military vehicles blocked a landing. What's next?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2009



Tegulcigalpa, Honduras

Belinda Baracona was just one character in an extraordinary drama Sunday, as she stood for hours on the sidewalk waiting for her president, ousted leader Manuel Zelaya, to return home to Honduras. When finally, around 5:30 p.m., the presidential plane flew overhead, she jumped with joy.

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The Venezuelan-owned jet flew over twice, once so low it almost seemed to graze the tops of the heads of the thousands of supporters who gathered at the international airport for his return. An ecstatic crowd shouted: "We want Mel! We want Mel!"

But after hours of expectation, with promises by Mr. Zelaya, known as Mel, that he was on his way home, and warnings from Honduras's new interim government that he would be arrested upon his return, the plane never touched ground. The Honduran military thwarted the attempt.

Zelaya blasted the interim government while he was on board the aircraft, in a phone interview with Telesur TV, a cable news channel financed by the Venezuelan government. But Sunday's events allowed him to continue his international campaign to return and not let his followers down, despite a warrant for his arrest on 18 charges including treason. It also gave the interim government, widely condemned by the world for orchestrating a coup and suspended by the Organization of American States (OAS) Saturday, space to seek a compromise, if one is possible, before more violence ensues.

"It was the best for our country that he did not return," says Juan Ramon Martinez, a political analyst in Honduras. "The situation could have been very tense."

Violence escalates at the airport

Already, the violence has escalated. At least one person was killed when shot in the head as protesters tried to storm the security fence at the international airport, which was heavily guarded by police and military in riot gear Sunday.

It was the first violence since Zelaya was taken at gunpoint from his bed and exiled to Costa Rica. A new government, which claimed Zelaya was flagrantly breaking the law in an effort to scrap presidential term limits, was installed hours later.

Sunday evening, the military fanned out across Tegucigalpa as a sunset-to-sunrise curfew was put in place.

Zelaya, who is backed by leaders the world over, told supporters that the military blocked the landing in Tegucigalpa by putting two vehicles on the runway. The plane turned away and later landed in El Salvador.

"I call on the Armed Forces of Honduras to lower their rifles," he told reporters in El Salvador late Sunday. He was accompanied by the presidents of El Salvador, Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador, and the secretary-general of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, who flew there from Washington.

Zelaya vowed to attempt another return soon.

Micheletti: No negotiation – yet

Interim President Roberto Micheletti said that the government blocked the landing to quell potential violence and said he will not negotiate until the situation stabilizes. "We will be here until the country calms down," Mr. Micheletti said at a news conference hours before Zelaya was expected to arrive. "We are the authentic representatives of the people."

The interim government did express its willingness, however, to speak with the OAS, which could signal a compromise. Many say a resolution is needed quickly. Tensions are mounting in the region. Micheletti alleged at the news conference Sunday that Nicaraguan troops were moving toward the border, which Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega denied.

And if Zelaya's failure to land staved off violence temporarily, some say it could actually harden positions in the long run. "A Honduran citizen should be allowed to return to his home," says Omar Rivera, a member of Zelaya's former government. "This is going to increase the temperature of the conflict. Now people have one more reason to protest."

Indeed, his supporters say they will not back down. "We will come back every day until he comes home," says Ms. Baracona, her husband nodding in support. "He is the president we elected."

Critics, however, blame tensions on Zelaya. "He knew he was not going to be able to land, he did it for his supporters," says Mr. Martinez. "If he keeps playing, he could push Honduras to the edge."

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