By WILL WEISSERT and NESTOR IKEDA, AP, Yahoo! News, July 5, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' exiled president took off for home in a Venezuelan jet in a high-stakes attempt to return to power, even as the interim government told its military to turn away the plane.
Zelaya won wide international support after his ouster a week ago by the military, but the only prominent escort aboard his plane was the U.N. General Assembly president after Latin American leaders backed out, citing security concerns. Honduras' civil aviation director said Zelaya's plane was being redirected to El Salvador.
Several other planes carrying Latin American presidents, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States and journalists were leaving Washington separately, trailing Zelaya to see what happens in the skies over Honduras before deciding where to land.
Thousands of protesters descended on the airport in the Honduran capital in anticipation of the showdown. Police helicopters hovered overhead. Commercial flights were canceled, and outside the airport about 200 soldiers with riot shields formed a line in front of the protesters.
"The government of President (Roberto) Micheletti has ordered the armed forces and the police not to allow the entrance of any plane bringing the former leader," the foreign minister of the interim government, Enrique Ortez, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Flying with Zelaya were close advisers and staff, two journalists from the Venezuela-based network Telesur, and U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, a leftist Nicaraguan priest and former foreign minister who personally condemned Zelaya's ouster as a coup d'etat.
Speaking live from the plane through Telesur, Zelaya called on the Honduran military to leave the airport free for him to land.
"No one can obligate me to turn around. The constitution prohibits expelling Hondurans from the country. I am returning with all of my constitutional guarantees," Zelaya declared.
But with their safety in the air not guaranteed, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa pleaded with the Honduran military forces to avoid bloodshed. "If there is violence the whole world must clearly know who is responsible," he said.
If Zelaya's plane is allowed to land, the others will land as well, Correa said. If not, Correa, the presidents of Paraguay and Argentina and Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, planned to land in El Salvador.
Honduras' new government has vowed to arrest Zelaya for 18 alleged criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since taking office in 2006.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling, Zelaya had also pressed ahead with a referendum on whether to hold an assembly to consider changing the constitution, and critics feared he would press to extend his rule.
But by sending soldiers to shoot up the presidential residence and fly Zelaya into exile a week ago, the Micheletti government has brought itself universal condemnations from the United Nations and OAS.
No nation has recognized the new government; President Barack Obama has united with conservative Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and leftist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in criticism.
The OAS had given the Honduran government until Saturday to reinstate Zelaya, and sent two emergency missions to Honduras in hopes of heading off an escalation. But Micheletti pointedly rejected the group's demands.
The poor Central American country's Roman Catholic archbishop and its human right commissioner urged Zelaya to stay away, warning that his return could spark bloodshed. The interim government said it would arrest Zelaya and put him on trial despite near-universal international condemnation of the coup that removed him as he campaigned to revise the constitution.
The OAS suspended Honduras as a member late Saturday. Micheletti preemptively pulled out of the organization hours earlier rather than comply with an ultimatum that Zelaya be restored.
Zelaya has urged loyalists to support his arrival in Honduras in a peaceful show of force.
"We are going to show up at the Honduras International Airport in Tegucigalpa ... and on Sunday we will be in Tegucigalpa," Zelaya said Saturday in the taped statement carried on the Web sites of the Telesur and Cubadebate media outlets. "Practice what I have always preached, which is nonviolence."
Zelaya supporters said they got the message as they converged on the airport.
"We have no pistols or arms, just our principles," organizer Rafael Alegria said. "We have the legitimate right to fight for the defense of democracy and to restore President Zelaya."
Large crowds of Zelaya's critics have staged their own daily demonstrations to back Micheletti, the congressional president who was named by lawmakers to finish out the final six months of the Zelaya's term.
Most of the ousted leader's supporters come from the working and middle classes of this impoverished nation, while his opponents are based in the ranks of the well-to-do — although the increasingly leftist approach of the wealthy rancher had eroded his popular support.
Will Weissert reported from Tegucigalpa and Nestor Ikeda from Washington. Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas and Marcos Aleman in Tegucigalpa, and Jorge Barrera and Michael Bodenhurst in Washington contributed to this report.