LAS MANOS, Nicaragua - Encamped in the mountains near Honduras, ousted President Manuel Zelaya struggled Monday to galvanize poor farmers, teachers and street activists into a movement strong enough to overcome his powerful foes and sweep him back into office.

Military checkpoints have kept all but a few hundred supporters from reaching the Nicaraguan town of Ocotal, where Zelaya parked his government-in-exile last week in a bid to keep up the pressure on Honduras' coup-installed leaders. Dozens of people camping behind the military blockades gave up Monday and started trickling home.

Many of those who made it to Nicaragua wondered how long they could hold out, tired of sleeping on foam mattresses, forgoing showers and waiting for Zelaya to come up with strategy for his comeback. Zelaya has vowed to remain on the border for at least a week, but has not announced any concrete plans since his brief foray into Honduras on Friday.

The crowd, housed in two shelters in Ocotal, spent Monday in disarray. They boarded buses for the frontier line, only to turn back to town when they realized that Zelaya had no plans to join them. The ousted president, as it turned out, had shown up to one of the shelters to address his supporters, only realize they had left for the border.

"We're waiting for Mel Zelaya to give the order, and we'll go with him," said Tomas Lopez, 57, an athletics teacher who travelled 600 kilometres to Nicaragua, leaving his family behind in Honduras. "I'm the head of the family, and they depend on me. We have food here and a place to sleep, but the problem is our children. Who is going to support them?"

Later, Zelaya rallied about 400 people sheltering in a gymnasium, urging them to be patient. But he offered no other details about his plans, instead launching a denunciation of Honduras' grinding poverty and the concentration of wealth among a few families. His aides handed out lunches of chicken and beef tortillas.

Zelaya's supporters - a loose coalition of farmers, teachers, public sector unions and one small leftist party - have staged near daily protests in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, including 3,000 teachers who blocked an avenue Monday.

Almost a month after the June 28 coup, the demonstrations have failed to become more than a minor inconvenience for interim President Roberto Micheletti and the formidable forces that support him: the military, business executives, Supreme Court and almost the entire Congress.

Zelaya, however, has received overwhelming support from nearly all foreign governments, which have condemned the coup and isolated the Micheletti government diplomatically.

But even Zelaya complained that international mediation efforts to force his return are flagging. He criticized the United States - Honduras' largest source of development aid and its biggest trade partner - for not being forceful enough against Micheletti, who has ignored sanctions threats and U.N. demands that Zelaya be reinstated.

"They need to be firmer, especially the statements from the United States," Zelaya said Sunday night. "There should be stronger signals, and they should denounce the atrocities being committed in Honduras and put themselves on the sign of the people."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly urged Zelaya to be patient and give negotiations more time. He reiterated Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's criticism that Zelaya was being "reckless" for trying to return to Honduran without an agreement.

"We're continuing to urge President Zelaya to allow this political process to play out," Kelly said. "We're not going to put any artificial deadline on it, though."

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the chief mediator, proposed an agreement last week that would restore Zelaya as the president of a coalition government, offer amnesty for the coup leaders and hold elections a month early on Oct. 28.

The interim government insists it cannot accept any deal that would return Zelaya to the presidency because it would violate a Supreme Court ruling order his arrest and a Congressional vote that removed him from office. It has vowed to arrest him if he sets foot in his homeland on four charges of violating the constitution.

All charges stem from Zelaya ignoring a Supreme Court order and attempting to hold a vote asking Hondurans if they want a special assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The Supreme Court and Congress are considering Arias' proposal but have given no indication of whether they are open to allowing Zelaya's return to the presidency.

Roberto Flores, the Honduran ambassador to the United States until Washington revoked his credentials for recognizing Micheletti's government, said he expected Congressional and Supreme Court decisions within two days.

He said Micheletti would abide by any decision to restore Zelaya. But he noted that for Supreme Court and Congress to return Zelaya, they would have to set aside a powerful chorus of opposition, including from the Electoral Tribunal and the attorney general.

"This may or not have influence in the decision that the judicial and legislative branches make," Flores said. "They cannot be ignored."


Associated Press Writer Juan Carlos Llorca reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.