TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' ousted president said he will return to his country in two days and reclaim control from coup leaders, urging soldiers to go back to their baracks and stop cracking down on thousands of his supporters who have protested his overthrow.
The military coup has provoked the condemnation of world leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and sparked clashes in the Honduran capital that have left dozens of people injured.
Flanked by leftist Latin American leaders who have vowed to help him regain power, Manuel Zelaya said late Monday that he would accept an offer by Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza to accompany him back to Honduras and work for the restoration of the democratic order.
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who has championed the poor, said he wanted to make the trip Thursday, after attending a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday to seek support from its 192 member nations.
"I will return Thursday to Tegucigalpa and I want the support of whoever thinks I have the right to finish my presidency," Zelaya said at a late night news conference in Nicaragua, where he earlier received a standing ovation during a meeting of Latin American leaders to discuss the coup. Honduran military leaders arrested him Sunday and flew him to Costa Rica.
He said he would call for dialogue and urged soldiers to return to their barracks.
"In the name of God, in the name of the people, stop repressing the people. If the people want to express themselves, don't press them," Zelaya said.
It was unclear how Honduras' current leaders would react to the return of Zelaya, who they say was legally ousted because he violated the constitution by sponsoring a referendum that was outlawed by the Supreme Court. Many saw the foiled vote as a step toward eliminating barriers to his re-election, as other Latin American leaders have done in recent years.
On Monday, thousands of protesters clashed with police and soldiers outside the national palace amid calls for the restoration of Zelaya to Honduras' presidency.
The loudest voice calling for Zelaya's return has been Chavez, who has urged a rebellion by the Honduran people.
"I'll do everything possible to overthrow this gorilla government of Honduras. It must be overthrown," the socialist leader said. "The rebellion in Honduras must be supported."
Chavez vowed to halt shipments of oil to Honduras under Venezuela's Petrocaribe pact, which provides fuel to countries across the region with highly favorable financing terms. Most of Honduras' oil comes from other sources.
Mexico's conservative government joined the region's leftist leaders in pulling its ambassador from Honduras.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala would cut trade with neighboring Honduras for at least 48 hours.
The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting for Tuesday to consider suspending Honduras under an agreement meant to prevent the sort of coups that for generations made Latin America a spawning ground of military dictatorships.
Protests outside the presidential palace grew from hundreds to thousands, and soldiers and police advanced behind riot shields, using tear gas to scatter the protesters. The demonstrators, many of them choking on the gas, hurled rocks and bottles as they retreated. At least 38 protesters were detained, said Sandra Ponce, a government human rights official.
Red Cross paramedic Cristian Vallejo said he had transported 10 protesters to hospitals, most of them with injuries from rubber bullets. Congresswoman Silvia Ayala said she counted 30 injured at a single Tegucigalpa hospital and an Associated Press photographer in another area close to the palace saw protesters carrying away five injured people.
Zelaya said more than 150 people were injured and 50 were arrested but added that he didn't "have exact figures, because I'm not there."
Officers armed with rifles briefly detained four journalists from the AP and three from Venezuela-based Telesur, arresting them at their hotel, loading them in a military vehicle and taking them to an immigration office, where two officials demanded to see their visas. The group was released a short time later.
In Washington, Obama said the United States will "stand on the side of democracy" and work with other nations and international groups to resolve the matter peacefully.
"We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there," Obama said. "It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections."
Meanwhile, Roberto Micheletti, named by Congress to serve out the final seven months of Zelaya's term, vowed to ignore foreign pressure and began naming Cabinet members, including a new minister of defense.
"We respect everybody and we ask only that they respect us and leave us in peace because the country is headed toward free and transparent general elections in November," Micheletti told HRN radio.
Zelaya alienated the courts, Congress, the military and even his own party in his tumultuous three years in power but maintains the support of many of Honduras' poor.
Zelaya was arrested in his pajamas Sunday morning by soldiers who stormed his residence and flew him into exile. A day later, back in suit and tie, he sat beside Chavez and other allies at the Nicaragua meeting of the nine-nation ALBA alliance, which agreed to pull its ambassadors from Honduras and reject the replacement government's envoys.
Recounting his detention, he said his daughter hid under her bed for 35 minutes while masked soldiers burst in to the residence and searched for him. He was on the phone with a media outlet when the soldiers ordered him to drop the cell phone, he said
He said the soldiers were shaking as they pointed their guns because they were "facing the president of the republic, and they knew it."
"I said, `I'm not going to drop it. If you have been ordered to shoot, then shoot,"' Zelaya said.
He said the soldiers simply yanked the phone from his hand.
Coups were common in Central America until the 1980s, but Sunday's ouster was the first military power grab in Latin America since a brief, failed 2002 coup against Chavez.
It was the first military ouster of a Central American president since 1993, when Guatemalan military officials refused to accept President Jorge Serrano's attempt to seize absolute power and removed him.
Honduras had not seen a coup since 1978, when one military government overthrew another.