TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Ousted President Manuel Zelaya vowed on Tuesday to return to Honduras flanked by foreign leaders to serve the rest of his term, defying a warning from a hostile interim leadership that he will be immediately arrested.
Zelaya gathered further international support as he addressed the United Nations and Organization of American States. He said the Argentine and Ecuadorean presidents and the U.N. General Assembly and OAS chiefs would accompany him on a trip back to Honduras on Thursday.
Upping the ante in what is already Central America’s biggest political crisis in decades, the interim government set up after Sunday’s military coup said Zelaya would be captured if he returned.
The coup against Zelaya — a timber magnate toppled in a dispute over his push to allow presidential re-election beyond a single four-year term — has been greeted by a tide of condemnation from U.S. President Barack Obama to Zelaya’s leftist allies in Latin America. But he remains a divisive figure in Honduras, an impoverished coffee, textile and banana-exporter of some 7 million people.
Several thousand demonstrators rallied in favor of his ouster in the capital Tegucigalpa on Tuesday, after two days of rowdy anti-Zelaya protests near the presidential palace.
But in a development that could offer an opening for talks on ending the stand-off, the interim government said it would send a delegation of politicians, business leaders and lawyers to Washington on Wednesday for talks on the crisis.
Roberto Micheletti, sworn in as caretaker president by Congress soon after Sunday’s coup, announced the mission after Zelaya traveled to New York and Washington to address the United Nations and Organization of American States on Tuesday.
U.S. officials said Zelaya would likely meet State Department officials while in Washington.
Zelaya insisted he will return to complete his mandate, which ends in early 2010, and said he did not intend to run for president again.
“I am going back to Honduras on Thursday, I’m going to return as president,” Zelaya said after the U.N. General Assembly urged member states to recognize only his government.
In office since 2006, Zelaya had upset conservative elites with his growing alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a left-wing firebrand who is championing an old-style revolutionary brand of socialism across Latin America.
Central America’s first military coup since the Cold War came after Zelaya angered Congress, courts and the army with a push for constitutional changes to allow presidential
Enrique Ortez, the interim government’s foreign minister, told CNN’s Spanish-language channel that Zelaya had charges pending against him for violating the constitution, drug trafficking and organized crime.
“As soon as he enters he will be captured. We have the warrants ready so that he stays in jail in Honduras and is judged according to the country’s laws,” Ortez said.
That set the stage for a potential diplomatic stand-off — Zelaya said he would be accompanied on Thursday by U.N. General Assembly head Miguel D’Escoto, OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.
Micheletti, who is backed by the country’s business and political elite and has said he plans to stay on until an election in November, told Reuters on Monday that the coup had saved Honduras from swinging to radical socialism.
In Tegucigalpa, anti-Zelaya protesters waving blue-and-white Honduran flags packed a square to back Micheletti and protest against the return of a leader they say wants to follow the socialist model of Venezuela’s Chavez.
“We are defending democracy, the constitution. Zelaya violated the constitution,” said Jose Manzanares, an engineer. “We don’t want him here, or his friends, Chavez and (Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega.”
Pro-Zelaya protests were calmer than in the past two days, when masked demonstrators clashed with security forces by the presidential palace. Troops and police tightened security at the international airport, but traffic was back to normal and many stores and cafes reopened for business.
Worried about the economic impact of the political uncertainty, Standard & Poor’s placed Honduras “B-Plus” credit rating on its Creditwatch negative category. [nN30462183]
Coffee producers told Reuters that protesters had blocked parts of three major highways in the interior of the country. But the country’s coffee institute said that exports had not been affected by the coup.
The World Bank said it had “paused” all program lending to Honduras following the coup.
At home polls show public support for Zelaya had dropped as low as 30 percent in recent months as many were uncomfortable with his tilt to the left in a country with a longtime conservative, pro-Washington position.
“Some sort of negotiation will have to occur,” said Shannon O’Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations. “For the international community, the most acceptable solution is that Zelaya comes back and completes the last several months of his term as President, and then steps down.”
The U.N. General Assembly called on its 192 member states to recognize only Zelaya’s government, calling in a resolution for “the immediate and unconditional restoration of the legitimate and constitutional government” of Zelaya.
Zelaya said he had only sought to improve the lot of poor Hondurans but had been treated harshly by the army and business interests. “No-one has put me on trial. No-one has called me to a court to defend myself, no-one has told me what the crime is,” he told the assembly.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Guido Nejamkis in Buenos Aires, Walter Brandimarte and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, Catherine Bremer in Mexico City, Editing by Frances Kerry