TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The daring return of deposed President Manuel Zelaya has thrust Honduras back onto the world stage and posed a sharp challenge to interim leaders determined to hold new elections without him after a June coup.
Thousands of Zelaya supporters defied a curfew and spent the night surrounding Brazil's embassy, where the leader remained holed up Tuesday, a day after slipping back into the country. In exile since June 28, Zelaya said he had traveled for 15 hours overland in a series of vehicles to pull off the stealth homecoming.
The government of interim President Roberto Micheletti ordered a 26-hour shutdown of the capital Tegucigalpa beginning Monday afternoon, closed the airport and set up roadblocks on highways leading into town. The measures were taken to keep out more Zelaya supporters from other regions in an attempt to head off the big protests that disrupted the city after his ouster.
But Zelaya loyalists ignored the decree and surrounded the embassy dancing and cheering and using their cell phones to light up the streets after electricity was cut off on the block housing the embassy.
"We're here to support him and protect him, and we're going to stay here as long as it's physically possible," said Carlos Salgado, a 43-year-old jewerly maker from Zelaya's home state of Olancho.
Supported by the U.S. and other governments since his ouster, Zelaya called for negotiations with the leaders who forced him from the country at gunpoint. But Micheletti urged Brazil to turn Zelaya over to Honduran authorities for trial.
Zelaya told The Associated Press that he was trying to establish contact with the interim government to start negotiations on a solution to the standoff that started when soldiers flew him to Costa Rica.
"As of now, we are beginning to seek dialogue," he said by telephone, though he gave few details.
Talks moderated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias stalled over the interim government's refusal to accept Zelaya's reinstatement to the presidency under a power-sharing agreement that would limit his powers and prohibit him from attemting to revise the constitution.
In June, the country's Congress and courts, alarmed by Zelaya's political shift into a close alliance with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba, backed the president's removal.
He was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court on charges of treason and abuse of power for ignoring court orders against holding a referendum on reforming the constitution. His opponents feared he wanted to end a constitutional ban on re-election — a charge Zelaya denied.
Arias called his proposed compromise the last option to end the Honduran crisis. "I think this is the best opportunity, the best time now that Zelaya's back in his country," he said in New York.
Zelaya returned on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the opposing factions in Honduras to look for a peaceful solution.
"It is imperative that dialogue begin, that there be a channel of communication between President Zelaya and the de facto regime in Honduras," Clinton said at a joint news conference with Arias.
Micheletti showed no inclination to give any ground, saying late Monday that Zelaya had violated Arias' mediation effort by returning.
"Arias' mediation in Honduras' political problem has ended ... and he has absolutely nothing else to do in this conflict," Micheletti said in a televised interview.
The interim government was clearly caught off guard by Zelaya's dramatic move. Only minutes before he appeared publicly at the Brazilian Embassy, Honduran officials said reports of his return were a lie. They soon ordered a 15-hour curfew, then later extended the shutdown by another 11 hours, until 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Speaking from the embassy, Zelaya summoned his countrymen to come to the capital for peaceful protests and urged the army to avoid attacking his supporters.
"It is the moment of reconciliation," he said.
Teachers union leader Eulogio Chavez announced that the country's 60,000 educators would go on strike indefinitely Tuesday to back Zelaya's demand to be reinstated.
International leaders were almost unanimously against the armed removal of the president, worrying it could return Latin America to a bygone era of coups and instability. The United States, European Union and international agencies have cut aid to Honduras to press for his return.
The U.S. State Department announced Sept. 4 that it would not recognize results of the Nov. 29 presidential vote under current conditions — a ballot that was scheduled before Zelaya's ouster. The coup has shaken up Washington's relations with Honduras, traditionally one of its strongest allies in Central America.
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, called for calm and warned Honduran officials to avoid any violation of the Brazilian diplomatic mission. "They should be responsible for the safety of president Zelaya and the Embassy of Brazil," he said.
Zelaya said he had "evaded a thousand obstacles" in getting back to Tegucigalpa but declined to give specifics on who helped him cross the border, saying that he didn't want to jeopardize their safety.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin said neither his country nor the OAS had any role in Zelaya's journey before taking him in.
"We hope this opens a new stage in negotiations," Amorin said.
But Honduras' Foreign Relations Department accused Brazil of violating international law by "allowing Zelaya, a fugitive of Honduran justice, to make public calls to insurrection and political mobilization from its headquarters."
In the days following the coup, at least two of the thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets were killed during clashes with security forces. Thousands of other Hondurans demonstrated in favor of the coup.