Honduras in lockdown after ousted President's return

Zelaya and supporters under siege in Brazilian embassy after being smuggled in to capital in boot of car

Holed up inside the Brazilian embassy after a shock, dramatic and unexpected homecoming, the deposed President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya said he feared for his life last night as soldiers and armed police continued to gather outside.

A day of protest and sporadic violence ended with troops loyal to the military junta which seized control of the country three months ago surrounding the building in the capital, Tegucigalpa, before cutting off its electricity, water and telephone supply.

Amid fears that he would order soldiers to storm the compound, the regime's de facto leader, Roberto Micheletti, said that instead he intended to starve Mr Zelaya out and was prepared to keep the siege going for "five to 10 years" if necessary.

Mr Zelaya, who has taken refuge at the embassy with roughly 70 friends and family, as well as diplomatic staff, responded by telling his supporters to ignore a 24-hour curfew that has closed airports and put the country on lockdown, and return to the streets.

"We know we are in danger," he said in phone interviews with international news outlets. "We are ready to risk everything, to sacrifice... I'm calling on all the population to come to Tegucigalpa because we are in the final offensive for restitution of the presidency... I think they are going to employ a strategy of... cutting off the food supply, asphyxiating the people inside, to demonstrate their force and power," he said. "They could be capable of even invading the Brazilian embassy."

Yesterday morning saw thousands gather in central Tegucigalpa, in contravention of official orders to remain indoors. Outside the embassy building, protesters threw stones at riot police, who responded with tear canisters.



By evening, order had been restored, with the country in a state of official lockdown. Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, called Mr Zelaya to reassure him that he would continue to be granted refuge but was careful to urge him not to provoke any further violent confrontations.

Whichever way the crisis develops, there can be little doubt that Mr Zelaya – who has been in exile for almost three months – timed his return to Honduras to perfection. As world leaders gather in New York for the UN summit, it will be difficult for them to ignore the crisis in the country.

The deposed president sneaked across the border in a car boot on Sunday night before making the lengthy journey to the capital using a variety of vehicles, including a tractor. His return, which also saw him swim a couple of rivers, so shocked the junta in control of the country that they initially described it as a hoax.

Outside Honduras, Mr Zelaya boasts almost universal support. The June coup that saw him frogmarched at gunpoint from his bed and put on a plane to Costa Rica, still wearing his pyjamas, has been roundly condemned by the diplomatic community.

Inside the country, the picture is more complex. A divisive leader, he was removed by a coalition of military leaders and members of the judiciary who were alarmed by a political shift that saw Mr Zelaya move dramatically to the left after taking office.

He had become close friends with Central America's growing band of socialist leaders, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Although that made him popular in left-wing circles, it had alienated large portions of the country's professional class, who were also concerned that he planned to amend the constitution to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.

An exile's homecoming: Honduras in turmoil

How did the crisis begin?

On 28 June, Honduran troops hustled President Manuel Zelaya from his house at gunpoint and put him on a flight to Costa Rica.

Why was Zelaya forced into exile?

Zelaya's opponents in Tegucigalpa believed he was manoeuvring to extend the one-term limit on his presidency. The army and Congress united in opposition led by then-Speaker of the Congress Roberto Micheletti, who has since become interim leader.

Why was the reaction so extreme?

His opponents say that his plans were unconstitutional. But some analysts believe the real cause is the establishment's opposition to his moves leftwards since winning power in 2006.

What has happened since?

Zelaya has made repeated attempts to re-enter the country. On one occasion, his plane was turned away; on another, he briefly crossed the border from Nicaragua. In the capital, protesters from both sides regularly take to the streets. But in spite of international condemnation, the situation appeared to be a stalemate – until Zelaya reappeared in the Brazilian embassy on Monday.

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