TEGUCIGALPA Toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya emerged from months holed up in a Brazilian embassy compound and flew into exile on Wednesday, ending a months-long political crisis as a new elected president took office.
Zelaya, ousted in a coup last June, boarded a plane that took off for the Dominican Republic shortly after opposition leader Porfirio Lobo, elected in November, was sworn in as president. Thousands of supporters at the airport cheered and shouted as the plane took off.
Zelaya's exit marks the closure of seven months of political chaos in the impoverished nation of 7 million people after the leftist was toppled in a dawn military operation in June and flown out of the country, before returning in September and taking refuge in the Brazilian embassy.
"They're never going to let him come back," supporter Carla Lopez, 30, said, holding her two-year-old daughter and choking back tears as she watched the plane take off from behind a fence with a view of the runway.
Others said they believed Zelaya would one day return.
U.S. and Latin American governments slammed the coup and many countries denounced Lobo's election on November 29 under a de facto government as illegitimate, but months of mediation and talks failed to overturn the coup and restore Zelaya.
Lobo received the presidential sash in a ceremony in the national stadium attended by foreign leaders, the military and supporters and vowed to move beyond the chaos of recent months. "Today we want to heal the wounds of the past," he said.
The Honduran Congress granted Zelaya political amnesty on Tuesday but the move does not affect criminal charges hanging over him and was not expected to alter his plan to leave.
Zelaya was flying to the Dominican Republic on a plane sent by the Caribbean island nation's president.
"I have an invitation ... to go to the Dominican Republic and I will accept the invitation, obviously with the approval of the new government," Zelaya told local radio on Tuesday.
Several thousand supporters massed at the airport saw him off with red flags now associated with Zelaya's camp and cowboy hats with red bandannas emblazoned with his nickname "Mel." Some 200 police guarded the runway.
"We are sad he is leaving, but he will be back soon," 38-year-old lab technician Florita Milla said.
HOPES FOR A RETURN OF AID
Zelaya's departure marks a failure of regional diplomacy to push the de facto leaders to step down. U.S. President Barack Obama, trying to improve Latin American relations, backed months of talks which collapsed with no negotiated solution.
Brazil, flexing its regional diplomatic muscles, gave Zelaya refuge in its embassy when he snuck back into Honduras in September. But his supporters turned the diplomatic compound into a chaotic camp-out and troops ringed the building.
De facto leader Roberto Micheletti, appointed by Congress the day of the coup, held on to office even after the United States cut military aid and multinational banks froze loans.
Human rights groups documented serious abuses, including deaths, as security forces cracked down on pro-Zelaya protesters and media outlets in the weeks following the coup.
Hondurans are eager to leave the turmoil of recent months behind, and Lobo, a wealthy landowner from the same ranching province as Zelaya, said he wants to move beyond the region's worst political crisis in decades and get aid flowing again.
"Due to the political crisis, Honduras has lost $2 billion dollars in foreign aid and international investment," he said.
Reliant on coffee and textile exports and migrant remittances, Honduras is hurting from the global downturn.
U.S. Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, called for a full restoration of aid.
Business leaders and political foes from Zelaya's own party accused him of violating the constitution to stay in power, mimicking moves by Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya denies the charges, but there is still an order out for his arrest. Under the deal struck with Lobo to whisk him to the Dominican Republic, he can avoid prosecution.
He has promised to return one day but his political future seems dim. His exile could also limit Chavez's regional reach.
As a sign Honduras is trying to erase memories of the coup, a Supreme Court judge cleared military leaders on Tuesday of charges of abuses of power on the day of the coup.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Vicki Allen)