TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - The Organization of American States tried to convince Honduras on Friday to restore ousted President Manuel Zelaya, but it hit a wall as the country’s Supreme Court warned the leftist would be arrested if he came home.
OAS head Jose Miguel Insulza met judicial officials and clergy in Honduras to try to reverse a military coup last weekend that drove Zelaya from office. He warned the Central American country faces diplomatic sanction from the Western Hemisphere.
Backed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Latin American leaders, the Washington-based OAS has given the interim rulers of Honduras until Saturday to bring back Zelaya or be suspended from the 34-member group.
The new Honduran administration has so far opposed any attempt to bring back Zelaya, who was ousted in a dispute over presidential term limits, sparking Central America’s biggest political crisis since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Zelaya has said he will try to return to Honduras on Sunday. In Buenos Aires, an Argentine government source said on Saturday that President Cristina Fernandez would travel with him, along with Insulza, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Miguel D‘Escoto, president of the U.N. General Assembly.
The group had originally planned the return trip on Thursday, but that was put off to allow the OAS time to work on a solution. The OAS is due to meet again in Washington on Saturday.
World bodies and governments from Washington and Brussels to Zelaya’s left-wing allies in the region have condemned his ouster and demanded he be restored to power. Zelaya, who took office in 2006, had been due to leave power in early 2010.
Insulza, the former Chilean foreign minister, was told firmly by the head of the Honduran Supreme Court that Zelaya would be arrested if he returns home.
“The president of the court told him the decision had been taken and they was no going back. If the president returns he will be arrested,” a court spokesman said after the meeting. The Supreme Court said after Sunday’s coup that it told the army to remove Zelaya.
The crisis has split Hondurans, with supporters of the coup holding rallies and pro-Zelaya demonstrators mounting rowdy protests, burning tires and building barricades, in recent days. Several dozen pro-Zelaya activists have been arrested.
Thousands of Hondurans waving the blue and white national flag staged a boisterous anti-Zelaya demonstration near the presidential palace on Friday.
The army ousted Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, accusing him of trying to expand presidential powers and being a puppet of Venezuela’s firebrand socialist President Hugo Chavez. Zelaya had riled traditional political parties and business leaders with his growing alliance with Chavez.
Insulza was due to meet politicians, church leaders and judicial figures but did not plan to talk directly to Roberto Micheletti, named by Congress as caretaker president, as the OAS wants to avoid giving his government legitimacy.
The OAS head was cautious before his trip, telling reporters late on Thursday he doubted he could defuse the crisis in one visit. “I cannot say I am confident,” he told reporters in Guyana. “I will do everything I can but I think it is very hard to turn things around in a couple of days.”
The bloodless overthrow in the impoverished coffee and textile exporting country of 7 million people has created a test for regional diplomacy and for U.S. commitment to defending democracy in Latin America.
Micheletti says he does not want Zelaya to return. On Friday he called on Insulza to “be just, fair and realize that (the Honduran) people want peace, democracy and tranquility.”
However, he has also said he would be open to bringing forward a November 29 presidential election to resolve the crisis.
The United States has criticized the coup and will decide next week whether to cut economic aid to Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, but the Obama administration has let the OAS take the lead in trying to solve the crisis.
The OAS, which groups most countries in the Americas including the United States, is a mostly symbolic organization that promotes democracy but has limited powers.
The turmoil has not yet affected coffee supplies, although Central American neighbors staged a two-day trade blockade of Honduras to protest at the coup.
No foreign governments have so far imposed economic sanctions, and Micheletti’s industry and commerce minister Benjamin Bogran told Reuters that an embargo would mainly hurt the country’s poor.
A grenade exploded by a fast food outlet near Tegucigalpa airport overnight, but no-one was hurt and it was not clear if the attack was related to the political turmoil, police said.
Additional reporting by Patrick Markey, Gustavo Palencia and Anahi Rama in Tegucigalpa, and Sharief Khan in Guyana; Writing by Alistair Bell and Catherine Bremer, Editing by Frances Kerry