TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Former President Manuel Zelaya returned from exile on Saturday, ending a nearly two-year political crisis caused by his ouster in a military-backed coup that led to Honduras' international isolation.
Zelaya's flight from neighboring Nicaragua landed at Tegucigalpa's international airport, where thousands of his supporters had set up a tent camp nearby, dancing and singing to celebrate his arrival. He was accompanied by his wife Xiomara Castro, two of his daughters, several former officials in his government and the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Bolivia.
Zelaya's comeback paves the way for Honduras to re-enter the world community, which near-unanimously rejected the June 2009 coup that saw him whisked out of the Central American country at gunpoint in his pajamas. The Organization of American States is scheduled to meet shortly to formalize Honduras reintegration into the body as a full member.
The deposed former leader on Friday traveled from the Dominican Republic, where he lived more than a year in exile, to Nicaragua in preparation for his return.
Thousands of supporters had waited anxiously at a tent camp set up in anticipation of his return.
"Honduras is in party mode," said Zelaya supporter Ronnie Huete, of Radio Globo.
Not everyone felt like celebrating, however.
Zelaya is "repudiated by the majority of Hondurans," a group calling itself the Patriotic Committee for the Defense of the Constitution said in a message broadcast by radio station HRN.
Irma Acosta, a former congresswoman from the governing National Party, said that Zelaya "should focus on singing and playing his guitar, which he does well ... and forget about politics, because his time has passed."
Zelaya is scheduled to have lunch with current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza.
The OAS, along with the governments of Colombia and Venezuela, is supervising the safe return of Zelaya, 23 months after he was removed by the military for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum asking Hondurans if they favored changing the constitution.
His detractors claimed he wanted to hijack the democratic process to enable his re-election, which is prohibited by the constitution. Zelaya has denied that was his intention.
His supporters say he was ousted because of his plans to reform Honduras' political and economic structure and his increasingly close relationship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Violent protests for and against the removal of Zelaya were staged near the presidential palace and Tegucigalpa's main square following the coup.
Zelaya returns to a country that has since enacted many of the changes he advocated.
His idea of holding a referendum to amend the constitution — the final straw that led to the coup— is now a law.
An agreement signed last week that makes way for Zelaya's safe return will also allow him to form his own political party and potentially end Honduras' long-standing and rigid two-party system.
A court dismissed arrest warrants for Zelaya, who faced charges of fraud and falsifying documents, and then dropped the charges.
"For a country under the illusion of advancing and no longer being isolated on the continent, they had to make certain concessions, including allowing Zelaya to return to Honduras without being prosecuted," said Jairo Velasquez, international relations professor at La Sabana University in Bogota, Colombia.
Lobo, who was elected president in elections scheduled before the coup, said he doesn't see a contradiction in enacting what the coup sought to avoid.
"That's life," he said recently at the close of a business forum. "One does not govern for today. One governs so that tomorrow they can say how well you did."
Chavez and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos were key in negotiating Honduras' reincorporation into the OAS in exchange for Zelaya's return.
Meanwhile, hundreds of supporters have painted T-shirts, signs and flags to welcome Zelaya home.
The head of the National Police, Jose Munoz, said Zelaya backers have promised to lead a peaceful celebration.
"Zelaya's personal safety is in the hands of people he trusts," his legal representative, Rasel Tome, told The Associated Press. "Those people are his countrymen."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.