Military signals softening in Honduras crisis

Exiled President Zelaya has set up camp on the Nicaraguan border to keep up pressure on interim government.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya is escorted by Nicaraguan police officers in the border town of Las Manos, between Nicaragua and Honduras on Saturday.

With mediation talks over the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya broken down last week, and international pressure failing to get the interim government to step down, everyone is asking: What's next?

Mr. Zelaya crossed into his country Friday, and then set up a camp at the Nicaraguan border over the weekend, vowing to come back to the border as many times as necessary.

The interim government has vowed to arrest Zelaya on charges, including treason, after he was exiled by the military June 28 in what the international community has declared a coup, though leaders in Honduras maintain the move was legal. Many feared his return could spark widespread conflict.

Instead, the moment passed. The interim government shrugged it off as a publicity stunt and foreign leaders condemned the move, saying it will do nothing to get Honduras back on constitutional track.

"I don't think we've seen the final chapter yet," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, adding that Mr. Zelaya must weigh whether risking a full return, and potential jail time, is in his best interest. "He will keep pushing, and crossing the line, and string it out as long as possible. If he is in jail, he's out of the limelight."

On Friday, at a remote border crossing at Nicaragua, Zelaya, flanked by media, lifted a chain and briefly stepped across the border, declaring that his return showed that support for the interim government is waning.

Roberto Micheletti, who heads the interim government, quickly dismissed his return as "ill-conceived."

The move agitated some foreign leaders. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "reckless." And Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States Secretary-General, urged Zelaya – as has the US – not to return home without a political agreement in place.

Despite international pressure, Zelaya returned to the border on Saturday.

"We are going to stand firm," Zelaya told a crowd of supporters and journalists who had gathered to see him. "Today we are going to set up camps here, with water and food. We are going to stay here this afternoon, tonight, and tomorrow morning."

If he does enter the country, the Micheletti government will have to decide whether to arrest him and risk "turning Zelaya into a martyr," says Mr. Farnsworth.

Soldiers did not approach Zelaya Friday to arrest him.

In a significant development, the military issued a communique Saturday stating its support for mediation within the framework of the San José accord negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The accord would allow Zelaya to return as president, though with curtailed powers.

The military's statement, which was posted on its website, marked the first time an important institution under Honduras's interim government has publicly signaled anything other than a refusal to reinstate Zelaya.

Zelaya made a first attempt to return home a week after his ouster on June 28, but his attempt to land at the international airport in Tegucigalpa was thwarted after the military blocked the runway. One supporter was killed in skirmishes between authorities guarding the airport and Zelaya supporters.

Zelaya was arrested and sent out of the country after he pushed forward with a vote to consider constitutional change, a move declared illegal by the Supreme Court. His critics feared he was trying to change the Constitution to abolish term limits for presidents, though he has denied that was his intention.

The ouster was condemned across the globe. No foreign government recognizes Honduras's current leadership.

Mr. Arias, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been attempting to find a solution to the political crisis, considered the worst in Central America since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.

But the interim government has refused to budge on one key issue: allowing Zelaya to be reinstated as president, a point that most countries in the world back as the only way to bring back constitutional order.

Arias has said that he will not attempt another proposal, though many suspect there is behind-the-scenes pressure for both sides to agree to the deal he has presented.

Arias's outline demands Zelaya return to carry out his term, but diminishes his power and moves up presidential elections to October.

If the sides do not agree, Arias suggested the OAS should take the lead role, though the Micheletti government might not accept the terms, since the OAS quickly condemned Zelaya's ouster as a coup and suspended Honduras from the regional body.

It is unclear what role the US, which had backed Arias as the lead mediator, will play now.

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman at the US State Department, said that Zelaya is expected to arrive in Washington Tuesday for more discussions.

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