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Ousted president Zelaya returns to Honduras

OUSTED President Manuel Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras yesterday almost three months after he was toppled in a coup, and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy to avoid arrest by the de facto government.

Zelaya's ouster on June 28 in a dispute over presidential term limits plunged Honduras into its worst political conflict in decades, and was condemned by US President Barack Obama, the European Union and Latin American governments.

Zelaya had been in exile mostly in Nicaragua while a de facto government that backed the coup against him became more entrenched in office, defying international calls to allow the leftist president to return.

But his sudden appearance in Honduras yesterday increased pressure on the country's ruler Roberto Micheletti to cede power and increased the chance of violent protests or a standoff at the embassy.

"I am the legitimate president chosen by the people and that is why I came here," Zelaya told Reuters by telephone from inside the Brazilian embassy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Zelaya and the coup leaders must find a way to avoid violence in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and a staunch US ally during Cold War conflicts in Central America.

"It's imperative that dialogue begin ... (that) there be a channel of communication between President Zelaya and the de facto regime in Honduras," Clinton said after she met Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

Several thousand Zelaya supporters gathered outside the embassy while a military helicopter clattered overhead and a small group of police stood some 100 yards (meters) away.

Micheletti, a conservative, wants Zelaya arrested on charges of corruption and trying to change the constitution, and is backed by the country's military, supreme court and Congress.

Flanked by close aides, he urged Brazil to hand Zelaya over to authorities.

"A call to the government of Brazil: respect the judicial order against Mr. Zelaya and turn him into Honduran authorities ... The eyes of the world are on Brazil and Honduras," Micheletti said.

Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after he upset conservative opponents who accused him of wanting to change the constitution to allow presidents to seek reelection. Honduran business leaders also distrusted his alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Zelaya was due to leave office in January after elections in November but denied he was seeking to extend his rule.


Zelaya said he braved many obstacles, crossing over mountains and through valleys to avoid military checkpoints. He did not reveal which country he arrived in Honduras from.

"I was traveling for around 15 hours using different routes and different methods of transport to arrive here and call for dialogue, which is my role as the elected president of Honduras," Zelaya told Reuters.

"I still haven't known fear in my 57 years," he said.

Obama has cut US aid to Honduras since the coup and pushed for Zelaya's return but refused his demands for tougher sanctions against the coup leaders.

Latin American leftist governments have accused Obama of not doing enough to force Zelaya's return to power.

Micheletti's government imposed a night-time curfew across the country "to maintain calm". Honduras is a major coffee producer but exports so far have not been affected by the crisis.

Brazil, Latin America's economic powerhouse which is seeking more political and diplomatic weight, has been thrown into the center of the Honduras conflict with Zelaya's decision to take refuge in its Tegucigalpa embassy.

In New York, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said he was hopeful Zelaya's return could start a new stage in negotiations to end the Honduran crisis and said his country was happy to play a role in any future settlement.


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