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September 24, 2009
Mystery in Honduran Leader’s Return
By MARC LACEY and GINGER THOMPSON
MEXICO CITY — He is the most wanted man in Honduras, with a face and black bushy mustache known to every soldier, police officer and border guard in the land. So as the political standoff in Honduras persisted Wednesday, the big question was how in the world Manuel Zelaya, the deposed and exiled president, managed to sneak back into his country undetected.
In a car trunk? With the help of loyal soldiers? In a disguise? Under the protection of other countries? Every option was being considered and debated in Tegucigalpa, where the population is very much divided on Mr. Zelaya.
His unexpected appearance at the Brazilian Embassy on Monday certainly surprised the government that ousted him nearly three months ago and had vowed to arrest him on 18 charges if he dared return. After initially denying that Mr. Zelaya had come back, the government was forced to send soldiers and police officers on Tuesday to disperse thousands of Zelaya backers who defied a curfew and massed outside the embassy for a glimpse of their erstwhile leader.
That Mr. Zelaya wanted to return was no secret. He buzzed the capital in a small plane on July 4 and stepped several feet across the border later that month from Nicaragua, to the delight of his supporters. In both instances the Honduran military stopped him.
How he did so this time and, even more important, whether his presence will help resolve the standoff in his country, are the subject of fierce debate.
“Everyone has been working hard to reach a peaceful resolution to this crisis,” said a senior State Department official, when asked about Mr. Zelaya’s reappearance. “Zelaya’s return was unexpected, and for him to do this without consulting those parties certainly was not helpful. That said, it’s a reality and it could have the effect of forcing people to make decisions they have avoided making — or it could cause the situation to destabilize.”
Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president, promised not to storm the Brazilian Embassy, where Mr. Zelaya, in his trademark white cowboy hat, and dozens of friends and family members are now trapped. However, the government did cut off water, electricity and telephone service to the building.
But he appealed Tuesday to the international community for dialogue to resolve the crisis, which began June 28 when the military, the courts and the legislature decided that Mr. Zelaya had violated the law by scheming to extend his term beyond that allowed in the Constitution, and therefore had to go. But despite worldwide condemnation of Mr. Zelaya’s removal, Mr. Micheletti has refused to cede power. Elections are to be held Nov. 29 to choose a new president, but many countries have said they will not recognize the results and that Mr. Zelaya must be allowed to serve out his term.
Carlos López, the foreign minister of the de facto government, quoted Mr. Micheletti late Tuesday as saying that “I will talk to anybody, anywhere, any time, including ex-president Manuel Zelaya.” But, news reports said, Mr. López ruled out steps including the reinstatement of Mr. Zelaya to serve out his presidential term. He also said Mr. Zelaya would not be allowed avoid arrest on a Supreme Court warrant charging the ex-leader with treason and abuse of authority.
From inside the Brazilian Embassy, Mr. Zelaya described his return to reporters as an arduous 15-hour slog that required trekking through the mountains and navigating back roads in buses, cars and trucks to get around military checkpoints. He said he was helped by a Honduran citizen, whom he refused to name.
“They didn’t realize when I entered,” Mr. Zelaya said on Honduran radio. “I mocked them.”
Various reports have emerged of Mr. Zelaya’s convoluted journey, which may have involved the help of other countries. After initially insisting that Mr. Zelaya was not in Honduras at all but was in a luxury hotel in Nicaragua, Mr. Micheletti said he had learned that the ousted leader had gone through various Central American countries, apparently in an effort to disguise his movements, before entering Honduras.
At the border town of El Amatillo, just across from El Salvador, a Honduran immigration agent working the evening that Mr. Zelaya entered the country said she did not see him. “But there are a lot of mountain passes where he could have crossed,” she said.
The Spanish newspaper El País, citing an unnamed Salvadoran official, reported that Mr. Zelaya was a passenger on a Venezuelan plane that landed without authorization on Sunday night in El Salvador. He was met, it said, by a car belonging to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the Salvadoran governing party. Both Venezuela and El Salvador have leftist governments sympathetic to Mr. Zelaya.
Where Mr. Zelaya went next, though, no one seemed to know.
The Honduran military denied that his return was a major security breach. “Military intelligence did not fail,” Adolfo Lionel Sevilla, the de facto defense minister, told El Heraldo, a Honduran daily newspaper. He added cryptically, “Everything can’t be publicized because it would create anxiety.”
One worry is that some members of the Honduran military loyal to Mr. Zelaya may have aided in his return. “There is a certain amount of concern among Hondurans about how Zelaya got into the country,” said Christopher Sabatini, editor of Americas Quarterly, a New York academic journal. “It’s hard to imagine that he could get in without some cooperation from the military. And Micheletti, in particular, has to be worried about whether he really has control over all his forces.”
One Venezuelan newspaper said Mr. Zelaya hid part of the time in a car trunk. Other accounts had him pulling up at the Brazilian Embassy in a vehicle with diplomatic plates that belonged to the Central American Parliament. Whether the Brazilians knew he was coming has been a matter of debate.
The State Department official said the United States had been aware that Mr. Zelaya wanted to return to Honduras, because he had vowed to do exactly that during his last visit to Washington. But the official said the United States was caught unawares by Mr. Zelaya’s appearance at the Brazilian Embassy, since he was expected in New York this week to address the United Nations.
After tear gas was fired to disperse protesters and scores of curfew arrests were made Tuesday, the State Department official said the United States was deeply concerned about the de facto government’s actions. He said he had heard reports that the security forces had taken control of houses surrounding the embassy, prompting the United States to send “strong signals” to Mr. Micheletti that they expected the government “to respect the inviolability of diplomatic territory and personnel.”
Marc Lacey reported from Mexico City, and Ginger Thompson from Chestertown, Md. Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from El Amatillo, Honduras.