TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - A leading candidate for Honduras' presidency on Wednesday distanced himself from the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya and said sending him abroad was a mistake.

The comments by Elvin Santos add to cracks in the once-solid backing among the country's power structure for the June 28 removal of Zelaya, though officials so far have rejected international demands to let him return to the presidency.

"I will go to all corners of the country to explain that that I was in no way a part of the events of June 28," Santos said on Channel 5's "Face to Face" show.

"The huge mistake was taking him (Zelaya) out of the country and leaving him defenceless," said Santos, whose Liberal Party includes both Zelaya and the man who replaced him, Roberto Micheletti.

Even the generals who hustled Zelaya out of the country are now taking pains to defend their action with a televised appearance that suggests they fear being made scapegoats if the ousted leader returns due to overwhelming international pressure.

Army chief Gen. Miguel Angel Garcia insisted on Channel 5 on Tuesday that the military stopped a plan to impose "socialism disguised as democracy," a reference to Zelaya's growing ties to Venezuela's socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

"What the armed forces did on June 28 was the defence and survival of the state, which was under threat," Rear Adm. Juan Pablo Rodriguez.

The armed forces chief, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, even suggested the military would not stand in the way if Zelaya returns to power under a plan proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

"The military will respect whatever solution is reached under the mediation of President Oscar Arias," he said.

Micheletti, the courts and the generals all insist no coup occurred because Zelaya was arrested on orders of the Supreme Court and replaced by an act of Congress.

Some say, however, that the soldiers went too far by sending him out of the country rather than merely arresting him.

"I didn't think it was right that they took the president to Costa Rica," said Adolfo Facusse, the head of Honduras' National Association of Industries, in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We have called for the courts to judge the military because the order was to arrest him," he said. "They should justify it."

Honduras' Supreme Court had ordered Zelaya's arrest on charges including treason and abuse of power charges for repeatedly ignoring court orders to drop plans for a referendum on changing the constitution.

Zelaya's opponents say he was trying to change the constitution to abolish term limits and extend his rule, as Chavez has done. Zelaya denies that was his intention.

Despite the suspension of millions of dollars of U.S. aid and the threat of more sanctions, interim leaders have made clear they expect to hold out until November presidential elections, where Santos is running in a tight race with Porfirio Lobo Sosa of the National Party.

Coup backers hope the election will calm international demands to restore Zelaya, whose constitutional term ends Jan. 27.

Zelaya, meanwhile, reiterated a call for tougher U.S. sanctions, saying the interim government would "last five minutes" if the United States imposed trade restrictions. The U.S. is Honduras' largest trade partner and its biggest source of direct foreign investment.

"The United States has taken action ... but apparently it's not enough," Zelaya said during a visit to Mexico, where he was warmly greeted by President Felipe Calderon.

Zelaya said he would travel to Brazil next week, continuing a Latin American tour designed to underline his international support.

The Organization of American States plans to meet Wednesday to organize a high-ranking diplomatic mission that would travel to Honduras in a new effort to end the standoff.