In a first breakthrough in the Honduras crisis after days of protests set off by a military coup, the ousted president and interim leader agreed to meet for a dialogue mediated by Costa Rica.
Deposed President Manuel Zelaya and interim leader Roberto Micheletti both backed the choice of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to lead negotiations, as mass protests both for and against Zelaya continued for a ninth day in the polarized capital.
Arias said in Costa Rica that the two foes would start two-day talks in his house in San Jose on Thursday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the Costa Rican bid to mediate after meeting with Zelaya in Washington, but stopped short of demanding he be reinstated as urged by the White House.
Zelaya’s highest-level meeting with the US administration so far in the crisis came amid increasing pressure on the leaders who packed him away over a dispute with the courts, politicians and the army over his plans to change the constitution.
“There needs to be a specific mediator and, to that end, we are supporting the efforts of President Arias of Costa Rica to serve in this important role,” Clinton told reporters after meeting Zelaya, who was sent away on June 28.
Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the conflict in neighboring El Salvador.
Clinton also said Zelaya had agreed to a negotiating process without preconditions on his future role.
When asked if she backed his return, Clinton said she hoped for “a restoration of democratic, constitutional order.”
Interim leaders insist they took power in a “constitutional succession,” not a coup, and accuse Zelaya of a string of crimes, including corruption and failing to implement laws.
Earlier Tuesday, they hinted for the first time at a possible exit to the crisis.
Zelaya -- who the army prevented from landing in the capital Tegucigalpa during violent protests Sunday -- could return if Congress grants him amnesty, a Supreme Court spokesman told AFP.
“The only one with the power to give amnesty is the Congress,” said Danilo Izaguirre, spokesman for the top court.
But both leaders also maintained their hardline positions Tuesday, despite agreeing to meet.
“We’re not going to negotiate, we’re going to talk,” Micheletti told a news conference in Tegucigalpa.
Zelaya said the meeting was not to negotiate, but to plan “the exit of the coup leaders.”
But the beleaguered leader said he would accept to advance elections due in November if he returned to power.
Zelaya’s wife led demonstrations in his favor on Tuesday, out in public for the first time since taking refuge in the US embassy after her husband was ousted.
“Everything is negotiable,” apart from Zelaya’s return to power, said Xiomara Castro, wearing a typical farm worker’s hat and surrounded by union leaders.
Thousands of supporters of the interim government also took to the streets in a demonstration for peace.
The airport was set to re-open Wednesday for the first time since Zelaya’s return attempt Sunday, but a curfew was still in place.
A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned “excessive force” by authorities quelling protests in Honduras, after two deaths in weekend clashes with the army.
The 34-member Organization of American States suspended Honduras at an emergency session over the weekend.
International pressure on the Central American nation also includes a freeze on aid, the recalling of ambassadors and temporary trade embargoes.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Zelaya’s key backer, said he has suspended crucial shipments of oil, while the Pentagon has placed all military activities with Tegucigalpa on hold until further notice.
Night curfews -- which suspend some freedoms guaranteed by the constitution -- and media blackouts have heightened tension in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.