Zelaya supporters escalate fight

TEGUCIGALPA: Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya vowed Monday to widen protests and block trade nationwide as the deposed leader headed to Washington for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Thousands of Zelaya supporters have demonstrated since his overthrow eight days ago, including 2,000 who rallied peacefully Monday near the presidential palace. Anger increased following the death of a teenager shot by soldiers Sunday as a crowd tried to break through an airport fence where a plane carrying Zelaya was prevented from landing.

"We're going to change strategies," said organizer Rafael Alegria, 57. "We cannot live under the current state."

Alegria said they planned to take their fight nationwide by blocking major highways and border crossings in an effort to impede trucks carrying fuel and merchandise.

Zelaya's plane took off late Monday bound for Washington where he was to meet the following day with Clinton as the Obama administration weighs responses to his ouster. The talks will be the administration's highest-level contact with Zelaya since his removal from office.

"We're very focused on the need for a dialogue to restore him back (to office) and restore the democratic order," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.

On Monday, the family of a slain teenager — identified as Isis Obed Murillo Mencia, 19, from Zelaya's home state of Olancho — was seen driving past the airport with his body in a coffin in the back of a pickup truck, sobbing, yelling and shaking their fists at riot police and soldiers.

The interim government closed the airport Monday and soldiers and military vehicles continued to block the runways.

Zelaya got as close as several hundred feet above Tegucigalpa Sunday in his continuing effort to return and reclaim power, but the Venezuelan pilots of his plane — on loan from President Hugo Chavez — decided not to risk a crash after circling the airport and spotting the obstacles on the runway.

Zelaya finally landed in Nicaragua after a late-night news conference in El Salvador with four other Latin American presidents and the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza.

"I am risking myself personally to resolve the problems without violence," Zelaya said Sunday night, urging the world's leaders to intensify their efforts to help him return to power and "do something with this repressive regime."

Zelaya is opposed by all branches of the Honduran government as well as the military, and has even alienated leaders of his own party, which supported the congressional vote to install Roberto Micheletti as interim president after Zelaya's ouster.

"Micheletti won't be in government for very long — only the time needed to improve things in Honduras," said Jorge Illescas, who directs the ruling Liberal Party that both Zelaya and Micheletti represent. "He will leave next January," Illescas added, when the next president takes power following November's elections.

Zelaya, who moved to the left and allied himself with Chavez during his presidency, was ousted hours before a referendum his opponents feared would enable him to push for constitutional changes to remain in office and move the country toward socialism.

Diplomats with the United Nations, the OAS, the United States and European countries were working behind the scenes Monday to seek common ground with interim President Roberto Micheletti, who has vowed not to negotiate until "things return to normal."

Insulza said he "is open to continuing all appropriate diplomatic overtures to obtain our objective," and senior State Department officials said the U.S. and other OAS member countries are trying to facilitate a resolution.

One option under consideration is trying to forge a compromise between Zelaya, Micheletti and the Honduran military under which the ousted president would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited and clearly defined powers, according to a senior U.S. official.

In exchange, Zelaya would pledge to drop aspirations for a possible constitutional change that could allow him to run for another term, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic exchanges.

Another senior administration official expressed some frustration with Zelaya, saying he rejected advice from the United States and others not to press for the constitutional change and not to try to return to Honduras on Sunday while the situation remained volatile.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeated his condemnation of Zelaya's military removal, saying in Geneva Monday that he too is saddened by the loss of life. He urged Honduran authorities to allow civilians to express their opinions without being threatened.

Chavez, for his part, has given President Barack Obama little credit for his forceful criticism of the coup, accusing the "Yankee empire" of quietly supporting the interim government. "They have the support of the Yankees. I'm not saying they have the support of Obama, because Obama I believe is a prisoner of the empire" as well, Chavez said.

Zelaya told reporters Monday in the Nicaraguan capital that he will try again to return to Honduras — but next time he won't say when.

"My mistake was to let them know I was returning," Zelaya said, "and they put up roadblocks and the army and snipers."

If he returns, Zelaya faces arrest for 18 alleged criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since he took office in 2006. Zelaya also defied a Supreme Court ruling against his planned referendum on whether to hold an assembly to consider changing the constitution. His political rivals ordered the military to remove him and stop the referendum, fearing that the exercise could encourage Zelaya's working-class base to push for a socialist state.

So far, the White House has called Zelaya's ouster "not legal." More than $100 million in U.S. assistance also would be lost if the State Department officially classifies Zelaya's ouster a "coup," triggering an automatic suspension.

Suspended from the OAS, the interim Honduran government now faces trade sanctions and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidized oil, aid and loans.

"The government thinks it can muddle through in isolation for a few months until new elections — and it could, if that was all it depended on," said Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. "But once aid and the economy comes into play, that's when people get upset."