Talks Start to Help End Political Unrest in Honduras

Diplomats pushed the two sides of the Honduran political conflict into direct talks for the first time in nearly three months, but left the country Thursday with no commitment from the coup-installed government to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

Members of the delegation sponsored by the Organization of American States characterized the result of their one-day visit — the establishment of a "table of dialogue" and an agenda for the talks — as a positive step even though the rivals appeared as far apart as ever.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said representatives of Zelaya and the government of interim President Roberto Micheletti agreed to discuss the main international proposal for resolving the crisis and will have "logistical" support from OAS staff left behind.

Any resolution, however, will be in their hands.

"This is going to be an exclusively Honduran dialogue," Stagno told reporters as the delegation headed to the airport. "This is a divided family and they have to reconcile."

The depth of that division was clear as Stagno spoke: About 200 pro-Zelaya supporters massed boisterously at the front door of the hotel where the direct talks are held, calling for the ousted leader's return. Dozens of police, some in riot gear with tear gas at the ready, blocked them from entering the building and they left after about an hour.

"The truth is they don't want a solution," 50-year-old protester Maritza Burgos said of the interim government. "They want to be in power, stay in power and keep President Manuel Zelaya, the only Honduran president, from getting back in office."

Canada's minister of state for the Americas, Peter Kent, said Honduras cannot hold its scheduled Nov. 29 presidential election with international support if Zelaya isn't returned to office soon, even with limited powers in a coalition government as outlined in a mediator's settlement proposal. Still, he said the visit wasn't a failure.

"We had both sides speak to each other in a positive way," Kent said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This was really only the first step in a much longer process."

The June 28 military-backed coup that toppled Zelaya has paralyzed this impoverished Central American nation with street protests, the suspension of foreign aid, diplomatic isolation and a standoff between the rival claimants to the presidency. The crisis deepened when Zelaya slipped back into the country in late September and took refuge with dozens of supporters in the Brazilian Embassy.

Governments throughout the world insist the ousted president serve out the final months of his term and be restored to his office in time to prepare for the November election.

The international community has also called for an amnesty that would prevent Zelaya from being prosecuted for what his opponents say was an illegal effort to change the Honduras' constitution. Amnesty would also keep a reinstated Zelaya from going after those who overthrew him.

The OAS dispatched foreign ministers and other senior diplomats from about a dozen countries in North and South American and the Caribbean. They met on Wednesday with Zelaya in a cramped and stuffy room of the Brazilian Embassy for about 90 minutes and with Micheletti around a conference table in the stately presidential palace, where he subjected them to an angry defense of his government.

Kent said the diplomats were surprised by the outburst, which he said was in sharp contrast to the "fairly civil" meetings between the representatives of the two sides. Zelaya, he said, has already agreed to a downgraded role if he is returned to the presidency.

"He would not be returned to office with the powers he has when he was originally elected," the minister said as he headed to the airport for his return to Ottawa. "He has agreed that he would come back under controlled circumstances."

Among the requirements is that he would not be able to "tinker" with the constitution.

In a statement released at the official close of its mission, the OAS group urged the interim government to "resolve the problem of the Brazilian Embassy," where Zelaya and dozens of supporters are virtual prisoners, sleeping on the floor and receiving shipments of food while soldiers have it cordoned off.

The delegation also called on Micheletti's administration to allow the resumption of operations at two pro-Zelaya broadcasters, whose equipment was confiscated under an emergency decree limiting civil liberties.

Zelaya has made no public comments on the negotiations.

Victor Meza, who represents the ousted president in the talks, said results had been "satisfactory" so far. Pro-Zelaya protest leader Juan Barahona, also taking part in the negotiations, said the ousted president must be returned by Oct. 15 in time to prepare for the election.

"If there's no resolution by then, I don't know what is going to happen," he told the AP.

Zelaya was forced from office for trying to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. His opponents charge he wanted to lift the charter's provision limiting presidents to a single term in a bid to stay in office or to be re-elected later. Zelaya says that was not his intention.