Tensions Rise In Honduras Over Coup
Violence Feared as Ousted President And De Facto Leader Refuse to Buckle

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In a battle of wills that threatened to explode into bloodshed, the two men who claim to be leader of Honduras both insisted Tuesday that they would not back down, as soldiers in the country's capital fired tear gas to disperse supporters of the leftist president who made a dramatic return three months after being flown into exile by the military.

The de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, said in an interview that he would not cede his office to Manuel Zelaya, the president who was ousted because of what the country's Supreme Court viewed as his efforts to stay in power beyond the one-term limit. Zelaya is now holed up in the Brazilian Embassy.

Still, as U.S. and Latin American diplomats worked feverishly to defuse the crisis, the de facto president acknowledged that unofficial contacts had been established between his side and the Zelaya camp.

"We are content this is going on," Micheletti said from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. He said, however, that he would not accept "impositions" from those close to Zelaya.

The coup in small, impoverished Honduras has brought unified condemnation from a hemisphere determined to prevent a return to the military takeovers of the past. But Honduras's neighbors -- and its most important trading partner, the United States -- have appeared impotent in the face of the crisis.

On Tuesday, Honduran soldiers used truncheons, water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of Zelaya supporters outside the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, according to news reports from the country. Zelaya, who was inside with about 70 friends and relatives, told reporters, "We are ready to risk everything, to sacrifice."

He had suddenly appeared in the capital a day earlier, after a secret 15-hour trip through the country. Police and soldiers quickly swarmed the area around the embassy, raising fears of violence.

"Given the reports we have received, and the poor track record of the security forces since the coup, we fear that conditions could deteriorate drastically in the coming days," Jos? Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The U.S. government appealed to both sides to remain calm and urged Micheletti's government to respect the Brazilian diplomatic premises, which it agreed to do. U.S. diplomats in Washington and at the United Nations -- including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- met with Latin American diplomats to try to resolve the crisis.

"The fact is, Zelaya is there. . . . We have to now try to take advantage of the facts as we find them," said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said that the United States and other governments were urging talks between Zelaya and Micheletti and that there were "initial feelers" between the two sides.

Asked if he was willing to negotiate with Zelaya, Micheletti said in the interview that he would impose conditions: "We want to hear from Mr. Zelaya first, before negotiations, that he's ready to accept the elections on the 29th of November, that he's ready to support the next government."

Zelaya has said he will not recognize the presidential election unless he is allowed to return to power, as envisioned under the "San Jose accord," which was brokered in U.S.-backed talks this summer in Costa Rica's capital. Under the pact, Zelaya would be allowed to conclude his term as scheduled in January, but his powers would be reduced and the election would be moved up by a month. Zelaya has said he is willing to sign the accord, but Micheletti has refrained.

The de facto leader said he did not trust that Zelaya would leave office as scheduled. He also said officials had discovered numerous cases of corruption linked with Zelaya. Under the San Jose accord, amnesty would be granted to people on both sides for political crimes.

But Micheletti made clear he did not envision amnesty for Zelaya.

"We have laws in the country. If he presents himself to the authorities, the courts, I think he's going to have a fair trial," Micheletti said.

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