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Ousted Zelaya sets foot back in Honduras, briefly

VOWING to return home, ousted President Manuel Zelaya took a few symbolic steps inside Honduras yesterday but backed away from a confrontation with Honduran security forces waiting to arrest him.

In a move described as "reckless" by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the ousted leader in his trademark cowboy hat crossed briefly into Honduras in the small town of Las Manos on the border with Nicaragua.

Pausing to give live telephone interviews and surrounded by a pack of journalists, Zelaya approached the chain dividing the two Central American nations, stepped over the border and held the chain over his head in triumph for a moment.

He then touched a sign that said: "Welcome to Honduras," but with troops and police standing just yards (metres) away, he said he did not want to proceed farther out of "respect for the principles" of the military.

An aide said Zelaya would return to Las Manos today to try again to enter Honduras, a coffee exporter and one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Zelaya 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 that he will face charges if he returns.

Washington has condemned the coup and backed a Costa Rican plan calling for Zelaya's reinstatement, but it also advised him not to enter Honduras without a political deal in place.

Clinton urged all sides to reach a negotiated, peaceful solution.

"We have consistently urged all parties to avoid any provocative action that could lead to violence. President Zelaya's effort to reach the border is reckless," Clinton said. "It does not contribute to the broader effort to restore democratic and constitutional order in the Honduras crisis."

Zelaya remained determined, vowing to return and saying he had helicopters and planes at his disposal and could return via other neighboring countries if necessary.


Talks this week in Costa Rica about the standoff -- Central America's worst political crisis in 20 years -- collapsed over the interim government's refusal to consider Zelaya's return.

Ignoring calls not to provoke tension, Zelaya left the Nicaraguan town of Esteli yesterday driving a jeep.

When he tried to fly home earlier this month, one of his supporters was killed in clashes near the airport.

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 leftists, called his family from the border, saying, "I am on the Honduran side."

His wife and elderly mother traveled with supporters from the capital, Tegucigalpa, but were held up at a checkpoint some 20 miles (30 km) away, an aide said.

Several hundred Hondurans trying to reach the border to greet him were kept several miles (km) back near the coffee town of El Paraiso. Some threw rocks, and troops tried to disperse them with teargas and sporadic shots in the air.

A Reuters photographer saw one police officer wounded in the head by a rock.

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," Micheletti told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.

Interim Deputy Foreign Minister Martha Lorena Alvarado said the Micheletti government remained committed to negotiations.

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 it because it calls for the reinstatement of Zelaya, mistrusted by the ruling elite that accuses him of trying to extend presidential term limits.

Zelaya told Reuters Television the talks had failed since Micheletti's side did not accept the Arias plan. "The Costa Rican thing is over now, it's finished," he said.

Zelaya spoke to a Honduran officer at the border and told reporters he had asked to be allowed to communicate with the armed forces chiefs of staff to find a solution to the crisis.

"Neither can I govern with an opposition as strong as that of the oligarchy, nor can they govern without the people, without the president elected by the people," Zelaya said.

State television showed a pro-Micheletti demonstration that drew more than 1,000 people in the city of San Pedro Sula.

US President Barack Obama has condemned the coup, cut $16.5 million in military aid and threatened to slash economic aid, but he has not yet taken measures directly against the coup leaders despite Zelaya's requests.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Zelaya was expected in Washington on Tuesday.


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