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Tension high as ousted leader returns to Honduras

Deposed Honduras President Manuel Zelaya made a surprise return home on Monday in a dramatic twist to the country's crisis on the eve of a meeting of world leaders in New York.

world Updated: Sep 22, 2009 09:03 IST
Noe Leiva

Deposed Honduras President Manuel Zelaya made a surprise return home on Monday in a dramatic twist to the country's crisis on the eve of a meeting of world leaders in New York.

As thousands gathered in the capital to welcome the ousted president -- who took refuge in the Brazilian embassy -- many feared further violence after deadly clashes during his two previous attempts to return.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for calm and welcomed Zelaya's return as an opportunity to end almost three months of political stalemate, as the UN General Assembly prepared for its annual debate to start Wednesday.

The Honduran military ousted Zelaya, sending him into exile in his pajamas on June 28, backed by the country's courts and congress, at the height of a tense standoff over his plans to change the constitution.

Following international condemnation and aid freezes, Zelaya has voiced growing frustration at what he regards as the lack of more decisive action by the international community to oust the coup leaders and return him to power.

His return brought the spotlight squarely back onto Honduras.

"Now that President Zelaya is back it would be opportune to restore him to his position under appropriate circumstances, get on with the election that is currently scheduled for November, have a peaceful transition of presidential authority and get Honduras back to constitutional and democratic order," Clinton told reporters in New York.

Clinton met there with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel peace laureate who brokered failed peace talks between the Zelaya camp and the interim government.

Arias urged both sides to sign July's San Jose accord, which called for Zelaya's return to the presidency, saying, and "I think this is the best opportunity, the best time."

A smiling Zelaya, sporting his trademark cowboy hat, appeared earlier back in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on the balcony of the Brazilian embassy.

Zelaya told local media he wanted to "initiate a national and international dialogue" that would permit his return to power.

The interim leaders, who have threatened to arrest Zelaya, imposed a 15-hour curfew and called for Brazil to hand him over. "I call on the Brazilian government to respect the judicial order handed down against Mr Zelaya and deliver him to the competent authorities of Honduras," interim leader Roberto Micheletti said.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said earlier that his country had played no role in Zelaya's return, but that it had simply accepted his demand for asylum in its embassy.

"We hope this will open a new stage in the discussions and a rapid solution," Amorim told a news conference in New York.

The Organization of American States (OAS) -- a pan-American body which suspended Honduras after the coup -- called for the interim leaders to ensure Zelaya's safety, during an emergency session.

"They have to be responsible for the security of President Zelaya and the Brazilian embassy," said OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza in a statement.

Insulza said that he was ready to travel to Honduras as soon as possible, probably on Tuesday.

Zelaya revealed few details of his journey to sneak back into the impoverished nation, but he said his return from exile in Nicaragua was part of a "peaceful strategy," following the failed crisis talks, in comments to CNN's Spanish-language news channel.

"We're hoping for international cooperation so that Honduras returns to calm," said Zelaya, who was due to speak at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday.

Micheletti has said he will step aside after presidential elections are held on November 29, and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from standing for a second term.