Coup leaders lock down Honduras

Capital's airport closed as military enforces curfew

Honduras was under lockdown last night as the coup leaders attempted to return the country to a state of order, while the ousted left-wing President Manuel Zelaya continued his efforts to return home.

The main airport in the capital Tegucigalpa was closed to all flights for at least 24 hours, while thousands of policemen and soldiers swamped the city to clear protesters from the streets with batons and metal poles. A sunset-to-sunrise curfew, starting at 6.30pm, will be in force for the remainder of the week.

Mr Zelaya began the day in El Salvador, where he ended up on Sunday following an unsuccessful but highly theatrical attempt to land at the airport in a borrowed jet. He was considering whether to try again, or to return to Washington and resume diplomatic efforts to overturn the coup.

The failed homecoming significantly raised the stakes in the crisis, since it resulted in the first deaths since the coup on 27 June. Two demonstrators were killed when soldiers fired on crowds trying to break down a perimeter fence and storm the runway, which was blocked by military vehicles.

At a news conference late that night, Mr Zelaya insisted he was hoping to "resolve the problems without violence", and urged the world to "do something with this repressive regime."

The country's interim President, Roberto Micheletti, who was installed by the leaders of the coup, is refusing to negotiate until "things return to normal". "We will be here until the country calms down... We are the authentic representatives of the people," he said.

Mr Zelaya was frogmarched from his bed at the presidential palace nine days ago, and put on a flight to Costa Rica wearing only pyjamas. It was the first military coup in Central America since the end of the Cold War.

International condemnation has been led by the UN and Organisation of American States, from which Honduras was suspended on Saturday. The US has suspended non-essential aid to the country and is now considering economic sanctions and shutting down military co-operation.

Despite being from a wealthy landowning family, Mr Zelaya had pursued a left-wing agenda since taking office in 2006, angering the country's business community. His removal came after he entered trade agreements with Hugo Chavez's Veneuzela and began steps to alter the constitution to allow him a second term as president.

The coup is supported by the judiciary which, in the event of Mr Zelaya's successful return, has ordered his arrest on 18 charges, including treason. It also has the backing of many Hondurans.

Outside the country, however, it has sparked unusual displays of unity by Latin American governments. When Mr Zelaya attempted to return home on Sunday, he was accompanied by a convoy of planes containing the presidents of Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay, and dozens of journalists.

His jet circled the blocked runway several times before the pilot declared that an attempted landing would be too dangerous. On board was the UN General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a priest, and a TV crew from Caracas.

"I'm doing everything I can," Mr Zelaya said during a dramatic mid-air interview. "If I had a parachute I would immediately jump out of this plane."

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