High noon in Honduras as Zelaya kept out

Violent clashes at airport as exiled president, backed by other Latin American leaders, attempts return
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The Independent US

Violent clashes erupted at the airport in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa last night, as president Manuel Zelaya staged a dramatic attempt to return to the country, one week after being deposed in a coup.

Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas as a crowd of thousands marched on the airport chanting slogans calling for the president's reinstatement. An Associated Press photographer reported that at least one person had been killed.

Mr Zelaya flew toward Honduras in a Venezuelan jet from the US, accompanied by the president of the United Nations general assembly and with several heads of state from other Latin American countries in a convoy of aircraft following behind. The extraordinary show of international solidarity was intended to put pressure on the newly-installed government in Honduras, which has not been recognised by any nation – but its leaders were defiant, ordering their military to prevent any unauthorised planes from landing.

Speaking from his plane, Mr Zelaya asked that soldiers return their allegiance to him, "in the name of God, in the name of the people, and in the name of justice".

Several thousand Zelaya supporters, some carrying sticks, rallied in the capital and marched towards Toncontin airport, where troops and police tightened security and set up roadblocks. Earlier, they had suspended all commercial flights. The crowds played steel drums and some set fires. The man who was reportedly shot dead had been hit in the head by gunfire from inside the airport as people tried to break through a security fence.

Enrique Ortez, the foreign minister of the caretaker government, said any aircraft carrying Mr Zelaya would not be allowed to land, and the country's civil aviation director said his plane would not be allowed into Honduran airspace. The interim government has already said Mr Zelaya will be arrested if he enters Honduras. "I have given orders that he not be allowed back. We cannot allow recklessness," Mr Ortez told local radio.

The Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez were among those in the convoy of jets. They said they would monitor the situation from the skies above Honduras, following Mr Zelaya down if his flight was allowed to land, and otherwise going to neighbouring El Salvador. Mr Correa said the deposed president would join them in San Salvador if he was prevented from landing in Honduras. "There is a great mobilisation of people in Tegucigalpa and we don't know if the interim government or the top brass of the military will dare repress those people," Mr Correa said. "So we decided that the most prudent thing to do was that the president of the UN General Assembly Miguel D'Escoto accompany President Zelaya back to Tegucigalpa."

On Saturday, the Honduran Archbishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez warned Mr Zelaya against trying to come home in a television broadcast. "Returning to the country now could trigger a bloodbath. I know you love life, that you respect life. Until today not one Honduran life has been lost. Consider this, because later it will be too late," he said.

Mr Zelaya came to power in 2006 as the leader of the centrist Liberals but he subsequently allied himself with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and tacked leftwards. Already at odds with the country's business elite, he then began moves to change the constitution to allow him to run for a second term. Congress and the courts supported his removal from the presidential palace at gunpoint on 28 June.

In the first successful military coup in Central America since the end of the Cold War, the army sent masked soldiers into the presidential palace before dawn. The President was escorted in his pyjamas on to a military plane which took him into exile.

But the overthrow of Mr Zelaya has triggered unusual unity in the hemisphere. Honduras has seen ambassadors withdrawn and trade barriers thrown up against it. The coup also marks the first test of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy in the region. He has suspended some military co-operation with Honduras but not decided whether to shut down all military operations. The US air base serves as a major staging area for regional security programs.

In a session that had lasted into the small hours of Sunday morning, the Organisation of American States expressed "deep concern about the worsening of the current political crisis" and suspended Honduras, but it did not immediately adopt sanctions against the country.

Earlier on Saturday, Honduras had said it would quit the organisation. "It is better to pay this high price than live undignified and bow the our heads to the demands of foreign governments," said Roberto Micheletti, named caretaker president by Congress.

It was the first time a member of the OAS had been suspended since Cuba in 1962. In a passionate speech to the OAS, Mr Zelaya said: "This coup is a test to the rule of law of every country in the world, and I believe this test has been energetically answered... There are moments when keeping silent is a crime. This is one of those moments."

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