TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Ousted President Manuel Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras on Monday 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 U.S. 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 on Monday 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.
Zelaya told reporters he had 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 by telephone from inside the Brazilian embassy.
Several thousand Zelaya supporters gathered outside while a military helicopter clattered overhead and a small group of police stood some 100 yards (meters) away.
The United States called for restraint in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and a staunch U.S. ally during Cold War conflicts in Central America.
Micheletti, a conservative, wants Zelaya arrested on charges of corruption and trying to change the constitution, but the president was defiant.
“I still haven’t known fear in my 57 years,” he said.
Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after he upset Congress, the military and 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 Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya was due to leave office in January after elections in November but denied he was seeking to extend his rule.
Obama has cut U.S. aid to Honduras since the coup and pushed for Zelaya’s return but refused his demands for tougher sanctions against the coup leaders. His administration called on all sides to remain calm following Zelaya’s return.
“At this point, all I can say is reiterate our almost daily call on both sides to exercise restraint and refrain from ... any activities that could provoke violence,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
Latin American leftist governments have accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to force Zelaya’s return to power.
Micheletti, whose government is not recognized internationally, earlier on Monday vowed to have Zelaya detained.
“The moment that we know he has entered the country we are going to go ahead with his arrest. We have search and capture teams to carry out his arrest,” Micheletti told Reuters before news broke that Zelaya had taken refuge in the embassy.
His government later imposed a night-time curfew across the country “to conserve 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.
The head of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, said Honduras’ de facto rulers “should be responsible for the safety of President Zelaya and the Brazilian embassy.”
Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in New York and Anthony Boadle in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell