WASHINGTON -- Two senior U.S. officials met ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya late Tuesday in Washington and stressed to the leftist politician the Obama administration's commitment to restoring him to power, according to an American official briefed on the diplomacy.
Mr. Zelaya is now expected to travel to Panama Wednesday, while the Obama administration and the Organization of American States pushes forward with a coordinated diplomacy to resolve the Honduran crisis.
In a key next step, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza is seeking to meet in a third country with a delegation of Honduras's coup leaders to demand Mr. Zelaya's reinstatement, according to the U.S. official.
The OAS last night set a three-day deadline for Mr. Zelaya's return to power or threatened to expel Honduras. The OAS also said it would press for sanctions against Honduras through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank.
The Obama administration, however, according to the U.S. official, is hopeful that there's an emerging political solution to the Honduran crisis.
Mr. Zelaya on Tuesday told the United Nations General Assembly that he wouldn't seek re-election after serving out his presidential term in January. Honduras's military launched the coup due to concerns Mr. Zelaya was seeking to amend the Honduran constitution to indefinitely perpetuate his rule.
The U.S. official said the Obama administration would welcome a scenario whereby Mr. Zelaya returned to power but didn't take part in a future election. This would restore Honduras's political process, said the official, while dampening political polarization in the Central American country.
"That scenario would fit the bill," said the U.S. official.
The State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Thomas Shannon, and Dan Restrepo, the top Latin America official at the National Security Council, led the delegation that met Mr. Zelaya late Tuesday at the OAS's headquarters in Washington. The U.S. official said Mr. Zelaya thanked the Obama administration for defending his government and encouraged Washington to continue to work through the OAS.
Thousands of Hondurans protested in support of Sunday's military coup against their president, even as he won U.N. backing for his reinstatement.
The U.N. General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution calling for Mr. Zelaya to serve out his term after he delivered an emotional address. "If this is allowed to stand, no president anywhere in the world, man or woman, can feel comfortable knowing that their armed forces can just decide for one reason or another to oust the president," Mr. Zelaya said. He received a standing ovation at the end.
In the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula on Tuesday, protesters dressed in white shouted "We don't want Mel" -- the nickname for Mr. Zelaya. The protests were far larger than those outside the presidential palace calling for Mr. Zelaya's return, underscoring the tricky political situation in this banana- and sugar-exporting country of seven million.
Juan Carlos Ramírez, a 29-year-old vegetable vendor, said the ousted president "was a clown of" Mr. Chávez. "It wasn't a coup," he said of the military's move. "It was the substitution of one president for another."
On Wednesday, the OAS said Honduran coup leaders had three days to restore Mr. Zelaya to power before Honduras risks being suspended from the group. (See related article.)
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States had "postponed'' joint military operations with Honduras, AP reported. The U.S. runs Central American security and counter-narcotics operations from an air base in Honduras, but Mr. Whitman said only operations affecting Honduras itself were on hold.
The World Bank on Tuesday said it would suspend all loans to Honduras until the crisis was resolved. France and Spain recalled their ambassadors, and Spain called on other European nations to do the same, while neighboring countries in Central America imposed a trade ban.
The political crisis came to a head over Mr. Zelaya's plans to hold a referendum last Sunday on redrawing the constitution, which could include scrapping term limits. The Supreme Court had ruled the referendum was illegal, but he vowed to press on.
On Tuesday, however, he told reporters, "I am not going to convene a constitutional assembly and if offered another four years in power, I would not do it."
That could help Washington try to negotiate a compromise with Honduras's new provisional government to allow Mr. Zelaya's return on condition he cede power to the winner of a November election.
Hopes for compromise rose when the interim government said it would send a delegation of politicians, business leaders and lawyers to Washington on Wednesday for talks on the crisis, Reuters reported. The White House tried to ramp up the pressure on the provisional government, saying on Tuesday that the only acceptable outcome was the return of Mr. Zelaya to power. But so far the U.S. hasn't officially declared the move against Mr. Zelaya a coup, which would trigger aid withdrawal and other sanctions.
Mr. Zelaya initially said he planned to return to Honduras on Thursday to take up his post. He said he would be accompanied by the head of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, as well as Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa, but Mr. Zelaya later delayed his return indefinitely.
Honduras's newly named foreign minister said Mr. Zelaya would be arrested upon return to face charges of violating the constitution, drug trafficking and diverting millions of dollars from the public treasury. There was no immediate response by Mr. Zelaya. Honduran prosecutors also sent Interpol an arrest warrant for the ousted leader.
A senior congressional leader in Honduras expressed disappointment in both Mr. Zelaya and the new government. The politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Zelaya broke the law but that Congress should have had him arrested and charged through the courts rather than using the army to remove him from power.
While the new government said it was protecting press freedom, soldiers temporarily detained several Associated Press reporters before letting them go. Government-run TV stations that previously backed Mr. Zelaya returned to the air, with broadcasts giving positive coverage to the new provisional government.
While Mr. Zelaya remains popular with some segments of society, especially the poor and some unions, many in the middle class, as well as the Catholic Church, the army, and many politicians, are firmly against him. "Tell Obama he's not in charge here," said Juan Pablo Pereia, a farmer protesting in favor of the new government. "We Hondurans are in charge. We have our laws, our constitution."—Joe Lauria and José de Córdoba contributed to this article. Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A9
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