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Exiled Honduran leader cites divide at home

Honduras Coup
Exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya sought to increase pressure on his country's interim government, promising to camp out across the border in Nicaragua with his supporters.Rodrigo Abd / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ousted President Manuel Zelaya has encamped his roving government-in-exile in this sleepy mountain town near the Honduran border to launch his return to power after a coup last month.

After weeks of shuttling between Central America and Washington, Zelaya said he would not leave the border region for at least a week, despite a U.S. State Department spokesman saying he would arrive Tuesday in Washington to restart negotiations with the interim government that deposed him.

"This week of my life is for me to occupy myself with the Honduran people," Zelaya told reporters as well as Honduran supporters gathered in Ocotal late Sunday night.

Zelaya cited a recently posted statement on the Honduran military's Web site as evidence of division between armed forces and the interim government.

Military vs. civilian states
The statement reaffirms the military's subordination to civilian authorities. But it also voices support for a solution to the nation's political crisis through an internationally mediated accord. The accord, earlier rejected by the civilian government, proposed reinstating Zelaya under a power-sharing agreement.

"This communique from the army speaks clearly ... that there are two states: a civilian state and a military state," said Zelaya, who has made repeated public appeals to the military to disobey the interim government. "There is an internal rebellion between them."

Zelaya has drawn throngs of supporters and locals curious about the celebrity who has brought world attention and international media to the town of 35,000 just 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the Honduran border.

Teenagers riding two to a bicycle, wrinkled coffee farmers, a shoeshine boy, a young mother and child all gathered to catch a glimpse of the now-famous politician in the white cowboy hat.

Some were star-struck.

"I think he's handsome," said Nimia Salinas Inestrosa, 23, who works at a vegetable stand with her mother.

A threat to Nicaragua's peace
But his presence threatened to divide Nicaraguans as well. This town of two traffic lights suffered heavily during the 1980s Contra war, when U.S.-backed rebels attacked the Sandinista government.

Nicaragua's opposition Liberal Constitutionalist Party issued a statement Sunday calling Zelaya's actions "a threat to the peace, tranquility and friendship" between the two countries.

Leftist President Daniel Ortega's ruling Sandinista party has championed Zelaya's cause.

"What I'm starting to realize is that he has some problems in Honduras," said Jose Santo Ochoa, 66, who had to abandon his nearby coffee farm when it became a war zone in the 1980s. "It would be better to see him be the loser and look for a peaceful solution."

The deposed president maintained his two-front campaign to pressure his country's interim government through civil disobedience, while urging the international community to slap tougher sanctions on coup leaders, who have been criticized worldwide for using the military to whisk a democratically elected leader out of the country on June 28.

Washington has already suspended more than $18 million in military and development assistance. The European Union has frozen $92 million in development aid.

Government: Zelaya can never return
U.S.-backed talks led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias broke down last week when Honduras' interim government said it won't allow Zelaya to return as president under any circumstances. It has vowed to arrest him if he sets foot in his homeland on four charges of violating the constitution.

All charges stem from Zelaya ignoring a Supreme Court order and attempting to hold a vote asking Hondurans if they want a special assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Zelaya made a brief, symbolic trip a few meters (yards) into Honduran territory on Friday, turning back without being confronted.

The Honduran military thwarted Zelaya's first attempt to return home July 5 by blocking his airplane from landing at the airport in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Zelaya now stays at a local hotel and zips about in a convoy of white Jeeps and SUVs trailed by television cameras.

Supporters flock to exiled leader's camp
He said Sunday that more than 1,000 Honduran supporters have arrived, crossing the border on foot through the mountains to avoid roadblocks and patrols set up by the interim government to thwart Zelaya's return.

There was no way to independently confirm the estimate.

At one point Sunday, Zelaya strode into a throng outside his hotel, sat on the hood of a car and held up a voter ID card in one hand.

"With this weapon we are going to overthrow the dictatorship," he cried through a bullhorn.

In Tegucigalpa, relatives held a funeral for a young Zelaya supporter found stabbed to death Saturday in a field near El Paraiso, the border town on the Honduran side. Both the Honduran police and army denied any responsibility in his death.