TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' coup-installed government says ousted leader Manuel Zelaya is free to leave the country, but there's a catch: Zelaya can't go as president, and he says he won't go as anything else.
And so he remained holed up Thursday in the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been staying since he slipped back into the country three months ago. If he sets foot outside the building, the leaders who ousted him have vowed to arrest him on charges of treason and abuse of power.
They appeared to be softening their stance on Wednesday when they initially responded positively to a Mexican request seeking guarantees of Zelaya's safe passage to the airport so he could fly to Mexico as a "distinguished guest."
Zelaya said he had spoken with both Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Dominican President Leonel Fernandez about meeting Honduras' president-elect Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo in a neutral site to "find a peaceful solution to the situation in the country."
Mexico sent a plane to pick up Zelaya, and more than 100 of his supporters raced to the embassy to see if he would emerge.
But the government quickly said he could go only as a private citizen requesting political asylum, conditions that would bar him from any political activity and would in essence require Zelaya to concede he is no longer president. In the meantime, they diverted the Mexican flight to neighboring El Salvador.
Honduras' interim information minister, Rene Zepeda, said Thursday that the deal is off unless Zelaya accepts asylum.
"If these countries want to get Zelaya out of Honduras, they will have to do it according to the law: by giving him asylum in their territories, but without a bombastic title," Zepeda said. "If that happens, our government will accept that and they can take him immediately without any problem."
Brazil, which has argued that allowing the coup to succeed will set a terrible precedent in a region so tormented by military interventions, criticized the interim government.
"This attitude of humiliation toward President Zelaya, to want him to sign documents (saying he is not president), is something I have never seen," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said. "It is totally unacceptable."
Honduras' interim president, Roberto Micheletti, shot back that Brazil shouldn't meddle in the affairs of other countries.
"I urge the nations of the world to respect this tiny country that does not have money or oil but plenty of dignity," he said.
Without naming Mexico, he said unnamed forces on Wednesday had "tried to deceive us. With lies, they wanted to surprise Honduras once again."
Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa said Mexico was still seeking a solution, but offered no details.
"Mexico, staying faithful to its humanitarian tradition, will be available to reach out to help those people who are in a difficult situation, and this will not be the exception," Espinosa said Thursday.
Lobo, meanwhile, was trying to put the crisis behind Honduras, traveling abroad in an attempt to regain international support for one of Latin America's poorest nations after five months of diplomatic and economic isolation that began with Zelaya's June 28 ouster by the military.
Lobo's term begins when Zelaya's had been scheduled to end: Jan. 27.