TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Deposed President Manuel Zelaya made a dramatic return to Honduras’ capital on Monday, taking shelter from arrest at Brazil’s embassy and calling for negotiations with the leaders who forced him from the country at gunpoint.
The interim government ordered a 15-hour curfew, but thousands of Zelaya supporters ignored the decreed 4 p.m. (2200 GMT) shutdown and remained outside the embassy, dancing and cheering.
Others in the capital started rushing home, lining up at bus stands and frantically looking for taxis.
The leftist leader’s homecoming creates a sharp new challenge for the interim government that has threatened repeatedly to throw him in jail if he returns.
Chants of “Yes we could! Yes we could!” bellowed from the crowd.
Zelaya told The Associated Press that he was trying to establish contact with the interim government to start negotiations on a solution to the standoff that started when he soldiers who flew him out of the country on June 28.
“As of now, we are beginning to seek dialogue,” he said by telephone, though he gave few details. Talks moderated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias have been stalled for weeks over the interim government’s refusal to accept Zelaya’s reinstatement.
He also summoned his countrymen to come to the capital for peaceful protests and urged the army to avoid attacking his supporters.
“It is the moment of reconciliation,” he said.
The government of interim President Roberto Micheletti, who took power after Zelaya’s ouster, said the curfew would continue to 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) Wednesday due to “the events of the last few hours.” Micheletti, who has promised to step aside following scheduled presidential elections in November, made no other comment on Zelaya’s return.
The interim government was caught off guard by Zelaya’s appearance. Only minutes before he appeared publicly at the embassy, officials said reports of his return were a lie.
Zelaya’s presence could revive the large demonstrations that disrupted the capital following the coup and threatens to overshadow the presidential election campaign.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged both sides to look for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
“It is imperative that dialogue begin, that there be a channel of communication between President Zelaya and the de facto regime in Honduras,” Rodham Clinton told reporters on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York.
The U.S. State Department announced Sept. 4 that it would not recognize results of the presidential vote under current conditions. The coup has shaken up Washington’s relations with Honduras, traditionally one of its strongest allies in Central America.
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, called for calm and warned Honduran officials to avoid any violation of the Brazilian diplomatic mission. “They should be responsible for the safety of president Zelaya and the Embassy of Brazil,” he said.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin said neither his country nor the OAS had any role in Zelaya’s journey before taking him in.
“We hope this opens a new stage in negotiations,” Amorin said. He also warned: “If something happens to Zelaya or our embassy it would be a violation of international law,” which bars host countries from arresting people inside diplomatic missions.
Honduras’ Foreign Relations Department criticized Brazil, saying it was violating international law by “allowing Zelaya, a fugitive of Honduran justice, to make public calls to insurrection and political mobilization from its headquarters.”
Micheletti urged Brazil in a nationwide radio address to turn Zelaya over to Honduran authorities.
In the days following the coup, at least two of the thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets were killed during clashes with security forces. Thousands of other Hondurans demonstrated in favour of the coup.
The country’s Congress and courts, alarmed by Zelaya’s political shift into a close alliance with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba, backed Zelaya’s removal.
He was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court on charges of treason and abuse of power for ignoring court orders against holding a popular referendum on reforming the constitution.
Micheletti said Zelaya sought to remove a ban on re-election – grounds for immediate removal from office under the Honduran constitution. Zelaya denies any such plan.
International leaders were almost unanimously against the armed removal of the president, alarmed that it could return Latin America to a bygone era of coups and instability. The United States, European Union and other agencies have cut aid to Honduras to press for his return.
Zelaya said he had “evaded a thousand obstacles” to return, travelling 15 hours by land in different vehicles. He declined to give specifics on who helped him cross the border, saying that he didn’t want to jeopardize their safety.
His staunch supporter, Chavez, described the journey: “President Manuel Zelaya, along with four companions, travelled for two days overland, crossing mountains and rivers, risking their lives. They have made it to Honduras.”
If the interim administration attempts to imprison Zelaya, protesters who have demonstrated against his ouster could turn violent, said Vicki Gass at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“There’s a saying about Honduras that people can argue in the morning and have dinner in the evening, but I’m not sure this will happen in this case,” said Gass. “It’s been 86 days since the coup. Something had to break and this might be it.”
Associated Press writers Catherine E. Shoichet, Martha Mendoza and Alexandra Olson in Mexico City, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, and Matthew Lee in New York contributed to this report.