MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Thursday prepared a risky return to his homeland, where the government installed after last month’s coup vowed to arrest him.
Zelaya announced his imminent return after the administration of Roberto Micheletti refused to reinstate him – a key point of a last-ditch proposal presented by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the chief mediator in U.S.-backed talks to end the political standoff.
But it was unclear exactly when or how Zelaya planned to enter the country. Zelaya has set and let pass a series of deadlines for his return, and said he could travel by air, land or sea.
His spokesman, Allan Fajardo, told The Associated Press that Zelaya would set up base in the northern Nicaraguan city of Esteli and then hammer out the details. He said Zelaya would be accompanied by family, journalists and Honduran supporters.
“I will go back unarmed, pacifically so that Honduras can return to peace and tranquility,” Zelaya said at a news conference late Wednesday in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. “My wife and kids will accompany me, and the military will be responsible for any harm” that befalls them.
Lorena Calix, a spokeswoman for Honduras’ national police, said Thursday that officers were ready to detain Zelaya.
“When he comes to Honduras, we have to execute the arrest warrant,” she said.
Honduras’ Supreme Court ordered Zelaya’s arrest before the June 28 coup, ruling his effort to hold a referendum on whether to form a constitutional assembly was illegal. The military decided to send Zelaya into exile instead – a move that military lawyers themselves have called illegal but necessary.
The coup has been opposed by the United Nations, the Organization of American States and all governments in the hemisphere.
Many Hondurans viewed the proposed referendum as an attempt by Zelaya to push for a socialist-leaning government similar to the one his ally Hugo Chavez has established in Venezuela.
Zelaya faces at least four charges of violating governmental order, treason and abusing and usurping power that could bring 43 years behind bars, and prosecutors say they are investigating a raft of other allegations ranging from misappropriation of public funds to drug smuggling.
The Honduran military thwarted Zelaya’s first attempt to return home July 5 by blocking the runway at the airport in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The flight sparked clashes between Zelaya’s supporters and security forces at the airport in which at least one protester was killed.
Arias presented an 11-point plan that called for Zelaya’s return to the presidency in two days and offered amnesty for the coup leaders. It also included several new points, including some proposed by the interim government with the help of a U.S. senator, who was not identified.
Among the new ideas was a truth commission to investigate the events leading up to the coup and moving up November presidential elections – two points Micheletti’s team said they would take back to Honduras for consideration.
Arias said both sides should now turn to the Organization of American States for a new mediator, and urged them to set an example by becoming the first country in modern history to reverse a coup through a negotiated agreement.
“The clock is ticking fast, and it’s ticking against the Honduran people,” Arias said in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose.
Micheletti’s foreign minister, Carlos Lopez, flatly rejected putting Zelaya back in the presidency, saying the executive branch cannot overturn a Supreme Court ruling forbidding the reinstatement of the ousted leader.
“A proposal of that nature is inconceivable, unacceptable,” Lopez told Radio America.
Micheletti’s refusal to budge came despite stepped up pressure from the United States and other nations, which warned of tough sanctions unless Zelaya is restored.
No foreign government has recognized the Micheletti administration.
Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Matthew Lee in Washington and Marianela Jimenez in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.