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Zelaya stages Honduras 'road show'

Zelaya, surrounded by supporters and press, lifts the chain at the border in Las Manos, July 24
Mr Zelaya's aides admit the brief crossing was "a show"

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Las Manos, on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border

If the exiled President Manuel Zelaya really wanted to enter Honduran territory, he could do so very easily.

The spectacular mountainous border between Nicaragua and Honduras is riddled with unguarded crossing points. They can be reached by foot or horseback.

Manuel Zelaya is an expert horseman and knows the area well.

But events at the normally uneventful Las Manos border post suggest one thing - Mr Zelaya, who was forced out of the country at gunpoint almost a month ago, is not interested in returning to his homeland by jumping over the garden fence. He wants to knock at the front door.

Publicity stunt

Honduran soldiers stand guard in Paraiso, Honduras, July 24
The crossing is normally quiet, with trucks and tourists passing quietly

"It's a show, I admit it," said one of his political allies as the Stetson-hatted leader and his supporters crowded the area where trucks and tourists usually pass from one country to the other with minimal formalities.

The presidential cortege wandered from side to side. The cheers rose whenever it got close to the chain marking the frontier.

Just once, Mr Zelaya's polished black cowboy boots stepped into Honduran territory. He raised the chain high above his head. And then he stepped back.

The softly-spoken former cattle rancher was throughout using up what must have amounted to hundreds of minutes on his Nicaraguan mobile phone.

He was live on air on news channels around the world. Via Honduran radio he sent messages to his wife and family: "I'll be home soon," he said.

But will he?

Popularity slump

On the Honduran side of the border, ranks of Honduran soldiers stood with their metal riot shields.

The United States should be helping me, not criticising
Manuel Zelaya

Many looked ill at ease. But they did not look ready to drop their rifles and change sides.

Mr Zelaya has some powerful institutions against him in Honduras - the army is one, the Congress another.

Even the supposedly politically neutral Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly shown itself to be on the side of the government which forced him out of office and out of the country.

He does not enjoy the massive popular support that would appear to be vital if he is to stage a non-negotiated comeback.

One Gallup poll in 2008 indicated his approval rating had slumped to 25%.

But that statistic might be misleading.

Mr Zelaya has long said he wants to represent the poorest Hondurans who have no political voice, and are presumably not telephoned by pollsters.

Repeatedly appearing at the border in the most high-profile way would appear to be, at least in part, a tactic to raise support amongst them.

'Whatever it takes'

The strategy has been dismissed as the "silly" behaviour of a "demagogue" by the government which removed Mr Zelaya from office - accusing him of illegally attempting to extend his rule.

Zelaya's plane overflies Tegucigalpa on July 5
Mr Zelaya staged a spectacular flypast earlier this month

But it might be working for Mr Zelaya.

"He's cool," said Mario, a 15-year-old Honduran who along with his sister was watching the presidential road show from the hill overlooking the crossing.

Earlier this month, the president's spectacular flypast of Tegucigalpa airport provoked a similar reaction from thousands of onlookers.

A massive cheer rose from the fields surrounding the runway as Mr Zelaya, on board a Venezuelan private jet, swooped low overhead.

He was prevented from landing by the Honduran army which had placed trucks in his way.

But he had made his presence felt.

When asked if he is seeking an insurrection inside Honduras, Mr Zelaya is unapologetic - he says the Honduran people have the right to do "whatever it takes" so that he can return to the country.

'The resistance'

Across much of the southern part of the country, where the ousted president's support is strongest, young men wearing red masks and Zelaya-style cowboy hats are blocking major roads.

They call themselves the Honduran Resistance.

In Paraiso, just down the road from the Las Manos border crossing, some walked for hours to jeer at the army which prevented them from approaching the frontier.

When a noon curfew was imposed, the soldiers tried to clear the crowd in heavy-handed fashion by launching tear gas canisters.

"We are ready to be martyrs," said sculptor Juan Jose Valle, as he looked at the ranks of soldiers in front of him.

Some are watching developments with dismay, even alarm.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just weeks ago received President Zelaya in Washington, has indicated that she regards his attempts to return to the country as "reckless".

Mr Zelaya dismissed the comments.

"The United States should be helping me, not criticising", he said.



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