WASHINGTON - Signaling more forceful U.S. support, President Barack Obama called for the reinstatement of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Tuesday even while noting he has been no friend of American policies.
Zelaya, who was toppled in a June 28 coup triggered by his efforts to change presidential term limits, met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, another tangible sign of U.S. backing.
America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies, Obama said.
We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not, he said in a speech in Russia.
One point of disagreement with Zelaya, who took office in 2006 and has taken a leftward shift since, has been the Honduran leader's push for communist-run Cuba to rejoin a regional group over U.S. objections.
Zelaya grew close to Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez and a string of allies seeking to counter U.S. influence in the region. That group has been vocal in calling for his reinstatement.
His ouster has been a test for Obama's commitment to improve ties in a region where his predecessor, George W. Bush, was widely unpopular.
The United States has repeatedly condemned the coup in the coffee and textile exporting country, the third poorest in the Americas after Haiti and Nicaragua.
Defying the international pressure, Roberto Micheletti, appointed president by Honduran lawmakers after the coup, has insisted the ousted leader was legally removed.
But in a sign he was ready to pursue diplomatic solutions, Micheletti said on Tuesday his interim government had accepted Costa Rican President Oscar Arias as a mediator. Arias won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end political violence in Central America in the 1980s.
We've accepted him as the mediator, given the high profile that the president of Costa Rica has, Micheletti told local radio in Tegucigalpa. But he added: We maintain our position that President Zelaya should not return. He committed crimes and he must pay for them.
PRO-ZELAYA PROTEST IN TEGUCIGALPA
Wary of being accused of meddling, the United States has sought to play a behind the scenes role on reinstating Zelaya, with the Organization of American States (OAS) leading the effort. The OAS took the rare step of suspending Honduras on Saturday in an effort to isolate the country's interim government.
Critics have long accused the United States of interfering in its backyard. During the Cold War Washington backed right-wing dictatorships to stop the spread of communism, and more recently the Bush administration caused a stir in 2002 when it initially appeared to welcome a short-lived coup against Chavez.
Micheletti's interim government, which thwarted Zelaya's attempt to force the issue by returning home on Sunday, says the ouster was a constitutional transition carried out by the army and supported by the Supreme Court because Zelaya had illegally tried to organize a vote on changing presidential term limits.
Zelaya, who had been due to leave office in 2010, had riled the country's traditional ruling elite with his growing alliance with Chavez.
Despite the latest U.S. display of support for Zelaya, one analyst noted Washington's delicate position.
The U.S. is deeply concerned about the coup but at the same time has become increasingly aware that engineering Zelaya's return to Honduras is a potentially explosive proposition, said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
The meeting with Hillary Clinton is intended to demonstrate the Obama administration's support for democracy in Honduras, but it also provides the opportunity for a frank discussion with Zelaya about his dwindling options to regain the presidency, Erikson added.
In the Honduran capital several thousand supporters of Zelaya led by his wife, Xiomara, staged a rally on Tuesday.
They say there is peace in the country, but how can there be peace if people cannot leave their neighborhoods ... if there is a curfew, if they are suspending people's rights and the army is out repressing the people, Xiomara Zelaya said.
Several OAS member states had advised Zelaya against trying to fly home on Sunday, but he went anyway. The interim government stopped his plane from landing, and at least one person was killed when troops clashed with pro-Zelaya protesters at the airport in Tegucigalpa.
A commission of Honduran private sector representatives flew to Washington on Monday to seek trade guarantees and make the case for the interim government.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey and Mica Rosenberg in Tegucigalpa, Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas, Matt Spetalnick in Moscow; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Frances Kerry)