July 26, 2009 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

Pro-Zelaya border protest weakens in Honduras

EL PARAISO, Honduras (Reuters) - Disheartened supporters of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya trickled home from the Nicaraguan border on Sunday, weakening protests backing his bid to return to power after a coup last month.

Ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya is escorted by Nicaraguan police officers in the border town of Las Manos, between Nicaragua and Honduras, July 25, 2009. Defying U.S. criticism, Zelaya returned for a second day on Saturday to Honduras' land border to put pressure on the coup leaders who threw him out of the country last month. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Honduran troops manning checkpoints have prevented several thousand demonstrators from staging a show of support at the border for the leftist leader, now exiled in Nicaragua.

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.

Lilian Ordonez, a 29-year-old teacher, came with a convoy of some 100 cars to try to reach the border, but only six made it through the checkpoints.

“We’re going to head back to Tegucigalpa where most of the people are,” she said, wiping off 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 hundred Hondurans who managed to reach the border were camped out in Nicaragua with Zelaya, holed up in the town of Ocotal on Sunday planning his next move.

Zelaya was accused by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court of trying to extend presidential term limits. Soldiers arrested him and sent him into exile on June 28.

The United States, Latin American governments and the United Nations want Zelaya returned to power, but 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. She should “stop avoiding the issue” of dictatorship in Honduras, he told journalists. “Secretary Clinton should confront the dictatorship with force.”

Roberto Micheletti, who was appointed interim president by Congress the day after the coup, says Zelaya’s removal was legal since he was acting against the Constitution. The Supreme Court ordered his arrest and Congress backed his removal.

U.S. President Barack Obama has cut $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras and threatened to slash economic aid.

But Obama has yet to take harsher measures and there are growing tensions with Zelaya, a close ally of Venezuela’s anti-American president, Hugo Chavez.

TENSIONS WITH U.S.

The crisis has put Obama in a difficult position. He does not want to show U.S. support for rightist coups in Latin America, but some Republicans in Congress 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 said Zelaya is expected to visit Washington on Tuesday but it was unclear from his aides whether he would make the trip and who he would meet if he does go.

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 and that Zelaya’s actions on Friday did not help reconciliation.

The plan “is the best path for our Honduran brothers to get out of this conflict,” he said. 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 still committed to negotiations and open to some of the terms of the Arias plan, but not the return of Zelaya as president.

The Honduran military issued a statement expressing support for the negotiating process and affirming respect for civil institutions and the Constitution.

The military chiefs of staff would be among those with most 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.

Slideshow (21 Images)

In the capital, Tegucigalpa, tensions bubbled up at the funeral of a man found dead in El Paraiso on Saturday in unclear circumstances. Mourners burned a police car and beat two police officers, a Reuters photographer on the scene said. It was unclear how he died but Zelaya supporters blame police.

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 Marco Aquino, Tomas Bravo and Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Ivan Castro in Nicaragua, Tim Gaynor in Washington; writing by Claudia Parsons; editing by Todd Eastham

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