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U.S. and the Honduran dictatorship of businessmen gaining time

Honduran interim leaders: Zeyala can't be restored

By FREDDY CUEVAS and ALEXANDRA OLSON, Associated Press Writers Freddy Cuevas And Alexandra Olson, Associated Press Writers

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Honduras' coup-installed leader has dampened hopes for a negotiated solution to the country's crisis, capping days of mixed signals by saying firmly that there's no way the ousted president can return to power.

Also marking a tougher stance, riot police fired tear gas and arrested supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya who blocked a main artery leading into the Honduran capital Friday. Interim President Roberto Micheletti said his government would no longer tolerate street blockades that regularly snarl traffic in Tegucigalpa and other cities.

Zelaya's return has been a key demand of crisis mediator and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who also has proposed amnesty for the coup plotters and other measures as part of a compromise deal.

Micheletti, installed by Congress after Zelaya was forcibly flown out of the country on June 28, has sent mixed signals throughout the week on whether he might permit Zelaya's return as part of a deal. On Thursday, a confidante told The Associated Press that Micheletti was open to the compromise.

But Micheletti told reporters Thursday night that Zelaya could return to Honduras only to face trial for abuse of power and other charges.

"Under no circumstances will we let him take possession of the government," he said.

Arias said Micheletti had asked him to send an envoy to Honduras to jump-start negotiations. The Costa Rican leader said he was considering the proposal and indicated that Zelaya's return to power would be part of any talks the envoy held.

He said the envoy would have to meet with several sectors, "especially businessmen ... who have been very reluctant to consider the possibility that Zelaya be reinstated."

A former Honduran government official told the AP that Micheletti also told Arias he was open to restoring Zelaya but was seeking concessions to mollify the reluctant businessmen.

The concessions would be aimed at guaranteeing that Zelaya would not resume efforts to change the constitution, an initiative that led to his ouster, according to the ex-official, who is in regular contact with Micheletti and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was divulging details of a private conversation.

But late Thursday, Micheletti denied indicating to Arias he would back off his opposition to Zelaya's return to power, saying he was "a man of character who maintains his positions."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington holds out hopes for a negotiated solution despite Micheletti's remarks.

"We continue to believe that the agreement or the points that President Arias has put forward provides the best opportunity to resolve the situation," Crowley said. "And we encourage both the de facto regime and President Zelaya to accept the terms."

Zelaya had been trying to organize a referendum to gauge popular support for the constitutional overhaul, defying court orders declaring the vote illegal. Opponents say he was trying to change the constitution to extend his presidential term, which ends Jan. 27, but Zelaya denies any such intentions.

Further complicating the situation, Congress put off until Monday consideration of a bill granting both sides amnesty from prosecution — an important part of Arias' plan to end the standoff. Congress had originally been scheduled to take up the matter this week.

The interim government has long said it hopes to resist international pressure until November elections, which it hopes will weaken calls to restore Zelaya.

Zelaya supporters are doing their best to see that doesn't happen: Protesters who want him reinstated blocked the main highway leading out of Tegucigalpa on Friday, coming under tear gas fire from riot police for the second time in two days.

At least one person was injured and several were arrested, police spokesman Daniel Molina said. At least 25 were injured and 88 were arrested in clashes Thursday.

"We will not allow any more disturbances," Micheletti said. "We are going to bring order to Honduras."

Thousands more Zelaya supporters marched peacefully elsewhere in Tegucigalpa, led by his wife, Xiomara Castro, who returned to the capital after military blockades prevented her from joining her husband in a Nicaraguan town near the border.

"The coup leaders are desperate, and force is the only recourse they have left, which we will not accept or allow because we believe in peace and liberty," Castro said. "Those are our weapons."

The United States has suspended millions of dollars in military and development aid to Honduras to protest Zelaya's ouster. It stepped up the pressure this week, revoking the diplomatic visas of four Honduran officials and warning it was reviewing the visas of all officials in the interim government.

Zelaya adviser Milton Jimenez said a proposal would be floated in the Organization of American States for other countries to extend visa cancellations to a broader range of those involved in the coup, as well as freezing their bank accounts.

On Thursday, Zelaya met with the U.S. ambassador to Honduras in Nicaragua, where the ousted president has set up his government in exile.

Zelaya told reporters after the three-hour meeting that he asked for Washington to apply pressure on the interim government "with more energy, more strength and greater decisiveness." He will also ask for "immediate action" from the U.N. and Organization of American States.

But his foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, told the Telesur television network that "it has been a meeting of repetitions, of positions that can't be negotiated. They (the U.S. diplomats) didn't come with a change, nor any new proposal."

Micheletti called the meeting an "interference," and said "Ambassador Llorens has committed a serious mistake by meeting with Zelaya."

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Alexandra Olson reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Morgan Lee in Tegucigalpa, Filadelfo Aleman in Ocotal, Nicaragua, and Marianela Jimenez in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.