Published September 24, 2009
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Hungry Hondurans scrambled through looted stores and lined up for food Wednesday during a break in a long curfew called to halt violence that erupted with the return of the country's deposed leftist president.
Troops and police ringed the Brazilian Embassy where ousted President Manuel Zelaya took shelter on Monday after returning home in a daring challenge to the interim government that threw him out of the country at gunpoint in June and that vows to arrest him if he leaves the shelter of the diplomatic mission.
Most other Hondurans were trapped as well, cooped up in their homes since Monday evening by a government order to stay off the streets — an order ignored by some looters and pro-Zelaya protesters.
Schools, businesses, airports and border crossings closed, though the coup-installed government suspended the nationwide curfew for six hours Wednesday so that businesses could open briefly and people could buy what they needed. The government announced late Wednesday it was lifting the curfew as of Thursday morning.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva used the podium at the U.N. General Assembly in New York to demand Zelaya be reinstated as Honduras' president and the U.S. State Department in Washington called for restraint by both sides.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S., which still has contact with Honduran officials, had helped persuade authorities to restore water and power at the Brazilian Embassy and had helped evacuate some Embassy staff.
But on a street in Tegucigalpa, Lila Armendia peered out warily through her wooden gate at a scene of burning trash bins placed by protesters.
"It's scary to go out," she said.
Being stuck inside her home is no good either. "It's like being in jail," said the 38-year-old seamstress.
People determined to stock up for the uncertain days ahead trudged past bandana-masked youths sitting on boulders they had used to block roads.
About two dozen people at a supermarket littered with overturned shelves hunted through shards of glass and smashed potato chip packages for undamaged food.
Thousands of Zelaya supporters marched in the direction of the Brazilian Embassy but were blocked by soldiers and riot police who used tear gas to disperse them after the protesters threw rocks and broke the glass windows in storefronts.
Police said they arrested 113 people after scores of business were looted as protesters skirmished with officers throughout Tuesday night.
Zelaya told the Argentine cable channel Todo Noticias that 10 of his supporters had been killed, though he gave no details. Authorities said there were no deaths at all, though they said one person suffered a gunshot wound.
Dr. Mario Sanchez at the Escuela Hospital in Tegucigalpa said three people were treated for gunshot wounds there, however.
At an upscale shopping mall in the capital, women wearing track suits and pearl earrings formed a bumper-to-bumper line of orange shopping carts that snaked around the parking lot of a Price Smart they expected to soon open.
"This is a nightmare," said Lijia Acietuno, a 26-year-old business manager. "Look what this man has done to our country," she said, referring to Zelaya.
The crisis appeared to be taking a toll on Zelaya, too. He stared into space Wednesday as a shrinking core of supporters at the isolated Brazilian Embassy raised their fists and vowed to fight for his reinstatement.
The boisterous leader known for his trademark white cowboy hat had been traveling the hemisphere, meeting with heads of state to build a wall of diplomatic condemnation against the government that hustled him out of the country at gunpoint June 28.
He now finds himself confined to the cramped Embassy compound surrounded by troops waiting to arrest him.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in New York that Zelaya traveled by plane, in the trunk of a car and in tractors from Nicaragua to Honduras in a secret operation aided by supporters in the Honduran military.
Honduran military officials had no immediate reaction to Chavez's comments.
Zelaya was allegedly heading to a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York when he stopped Sunday in El Salvador and met with leaders of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front Party, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said Monday. But Funes, a member of the party and Zelaya's ally, said his government did not help Zelaya reach Honduras.
Chavez said that Zelaya told him in a telephone conversation that he would return to Honduras even if it cost him his life.
The interim government's foreign minister, Carlos Lopez, said that soldiers would not try to enter the Embassy to arrest Zelaya.
But he also said yet again that Honduras' interim government would not bow to intense international demands for him to serve out his final months as president.
Before he was ousted, the country's Supreme Court had endorsed charges of treason and abuse of authority against Zelaya for repeatedly ignoring court orders to drop plans for a referendum on whether the constitution should be rewritten.
The interim government accuses Zelaya of trying to create disturbances ahead of the Nov. 29 presidential elections that coup-backers hope will restore an international image of democracy to the nation and ease foreign pressure.
Zelaya says he has no plans to leave the Embassy and has repeatedly asked to speak with interim President Roberto Micheletti, who says he is open to talks with the participation of the Organization of American States.
Zelaya said Micheletti's refusal to accept international demands for his reinstatement mean he "does not have the will to resolve what is happening in Honduras."
"If he has any conscience, then he should yield and search first for peace and not for his own personal benefit," Zelaya said on the Costa Rican radio program Nuestra Voz.
The Brazilian government asked the U.N. Security Council to discuss the security of Zelaya and its Embassy in Honduras.
Zelaya's opponents accuse him of wanting to end the constitutional ban on re-election — a charge Zelaya has repeatedly denied.
U.S.-backed talks moderated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias broke down after Micheletti's government refused to accept a plan that would allow Zelaya to return to the presidency with limited powers and prohibit him from attempting to revise the constitution.