OCOTAL, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Disheartened supporters of Manuel Zelaya trickled home from the Nicaraguan border on Sunday and the ousted Honduran president complained that U.S. condemnation of his removal from power was waning.
The United States, Latin American governments and the United Nations have demanded Zelaya be returned to power, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized him as “reckless” when he took a few steps onto Honduran soil on Friday in a symbolic gesture in front of international media.
Zelaya hit back at Clinton for the second time in two days, complaining she had stopped using the term “coup” to describe his removal. “The position of the Secretary Clinton at the beginning was firm. Now I feel that she’s not really denouncing (it) and she’s not acting firmly against the repression that Honduras is suffering,” he told reporters.
Honduran troops manning checkpoints have prevented several thousand demonstrators from staging a show of support for the leftist leader at the border since Friday.
Six miles from the border, 100 weary protesters milled around the coffee town of El Paraiso, a far cry from the massive outpouring of public backing Zelaya had called for.
“We’re going to head back to Tegucigalpa where most of the people are,” said teacher Lilian Ordonez, wiping away tears. “We have to change our strategy. ... People are angry but we don’t have weapons and against a rifle, we can’t do anything.”
A couple of hundred Hondurans who managed to reach the border were camped out in Nicaragua with Zelaya, holed up in the town of Ocotal planning his next move.
ZELAYA URGES MID-RANKS TO RESIST GENERALS
In comments carried live on pro-Zelaya Radio Globo, he urged mid-level military officers to mutiny against their generals, who he said had betrayed Honduras for money.
The Honduran Congress and Supreme Court had accused Zelaya of trying to extend presidential term limits.
Roberto Micheletti, who was appointed interim president by Congress, and the head of the joint chiefs of staff, Romeo Vazquez Velazquez, say Zelaya’s removal was legal since he was acting against the Constitution. The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and Congress backed his removal.
“As commander in chief of the armed forces, I ask patriotic soldiers to think of their children, think of their families and to rebel against Romeo Vazquez,” Zelaya said.
The Honduran military issued a statement expressing support for the negotiating process and affirming respect for civil institutions and the Constitution — a move seen as partly a response to reports in pro-Zelaya media of unease in the middle ranks of the military.
U.S. President Barack Obama has cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras but has yet to take harsher measures, and there are growing tensions with Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela’s anti-American president, Hugo Chavez.
Obama is in a difficult position. He does not want to show U.S. support for rightist coups, but some Republicans say he has already done too much for the ousted leftist.
“It’s been very clear from the outset that (the Obama administration) didn’t really like Zelaya anyway,” said Vicki Gass, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America.
“This wishy-washiness on their part is giving the impression that they are backing away from their original stance,” she said.
The U.S. State Department has said Zelaya is expected to visit Washington on Tuesday but he said he had not been invited and had no plans to go this week. He also said at an evening news conference he had heard about a plot to kill him.
STAND-OFF OR A DEAL?
Micheletti seems to believe he can resist international pressure until elections in November and the world will accept the new order when a new president takes office in January.
The alternative is a negotiated solution under pressure from Washington, likely modeled on a proposal by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. In an interview with El Pais published on Sunday, Arias said his plan remained the only option.
While he said the coup must be reversed, he added that it was unrealistic for Zelaya to demand an unconditional return.
The Micheletti government says it is open to some parts of the Arias plan, but not the return of Zelaya as president.
The chiefs of staff have much to lose if Zelaya does return as president, since their position would be weakened if there is an admission that they acted illegally in removing him.
Zelaya’s relations with the military were tense before the coup. Just days before he was removed from power, he fired the military chief of staff after the army refused to help him run an unofficial referendum on extending his mandate.
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, tensions bubbled up at the funeral of a man found dead in El Paraiso in unclear circumstances. It was unclear how he died but Zelaya supporters blame police. Mourners burned a police car and beat two police officers, a Reuters photographer on the scene said.
Leaders of the pro-Zelaya movement said a small explosive device went off outside a building where they were meeting, breaking windows but causing no injuries.
Additional reporting by Esteban Israel, Marco Aquino, Tomas Bravo, Gustavo Palencia and Claudia Parsons in Honduras, Ivan Castro in Nicaragua, Tim Gaynor in Washington; writing by Claudia Parsons; editing by Mohammad Zargham