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Ousted leader's return ends Honduras' long crisis

The return of ousted former President Manuel Zelaya from exile Saturday brings Honduras' nearly two-year political crisis to an end and hope to one of the poorest nations in the Americas.

Zelaya's comeback will also pave the way for Honduras to re-enter the international community, which near-unanimously rejected the June 2009 military-backed coup that forced him from office and saw him whisked out of the Central American country at gunpoint in his pajamas.

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. He is expected to make a public appearance in Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa, before noon Saturday with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro.

Thousands of supporters waited anxiously at a tent camp set up near the airport in anticipation of Zelaya's arrival, setting off firecrackers and playing music.

"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 Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, the organization said.

The OAS, along with the governments of Colombia and Venezuela, is supervising the safe return of Zelaya, more than two years 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.

Now 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' longstanding 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."