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Honduran airport bars president's flight home after deadly day of riots

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya was kept from landing at the main Honduras airport yesterday because the runway was blocked by military vehicles and groups of soldiers, some of whom clashed with a crowd of thousands outside - leaving at least one dead and two wounded.

Several hundred troops fanned out around the runway to protect the airport, later moving onto the runway to prevent a plane carrying Mr. Zelaya from landing. The plane eventually diverted to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, and landed safely there. Mr. Zelaya made his way to El Salvador and pledged to try again today or tomorrow.

Clashes erupted after protesters broke through fencing near the runway, with troops and police firing tear gas to try to disperse the crowds. Reports on the number of dead varied. The Associated Press said one man had been killed by gunfire from within the terminal building, while Agence France-Presse quoted a senior police official as saying army troops had shot dead two people, described by witnesses as a young boy and a teenaged girl.

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In response to the violence, the Honduran government imposed a 7 p.m. nightly curfew.

The conflict came as Mr. Zelaya made his foiled bid to return home, fuelling tensions over the coup that ousted him a week ago. As his plane headed toward the region from Washington, Honduras's interim government, which has resisted international pressure over the coup, said it would order the plane diverted to neighbouring El Salvador. The control tower at Tegucigalpa airport told the pilot that the plane ran the risk of being intercepted if it tried to land, according to an audio stream of the airport's communications heard on an aviation website.

Speaking from the plane, Mr. Zelaya appealed to the troops to return their allegiance to him "in the name of God, in the name of the people and in the name of justice."

Mr. Zelaya, a leftist, had been due to leave power in 2010.

He was pushed out of office by troops and flown into exile in Costa Rica a week ago in a coup triggered by a dispute over presidential term limits.

The coup has spiralled into Central America's worst political crisis in two decades, testing regional diplomacy and raising a challenge for the Obama administration.

Underscoring regional tensions stoked by the ouster, interim President Roberto Micheletti said small groups of Nicaraguan troops were moving near their mutual border, although they had not crossed it.

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He urged Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a leftist ally of Mr. Zelaya, to respect Honduran sovereignty.

"We have been informed about movement of troops to the frontier in Nicaragua, and I ask Mr. Ortega to respect our sovereignty," Mr. Micheletti told reporters.

Mr. Ortega, whose country shares a border with Honduras to the south of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, called the charge of troop movements toward the frontier "totally false."

Leftist allies of Mr. Zelaya, including the presidents of Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina, flew into neighbouring El Salvador yesterday to support him.

The Organization of American States earlier yesterday suspended Honduras for refusing to reinstate Mr. Zelaya, the strongest move yet by foreign governments to isolate the country.

The New York Times reported that Canada and the United States worked closely together to moderate OAS actions in regard to the coup. According to the Times, the two countries dissuaded the hemispheric body from adopting sanctions and persuaded it to settle for a milder resolution encouraging member countries to "review their relations" while diplomatic efforts continued.

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Mr. Zelaya left Washington on a Venezuelan-registered chartered plane, accompanied by Miguel D'Escoto, president of the UN General Assembly, according to Caracas-based Telesur regional television, which showed images of the ousted president boarding the jet.

The aviation authority in Honduras said Mr. Zelaya's plane had been directed to go to El Salvador. In Washington, a senior U.S. official said that Mr. Zelaya's plane would divert to a neighbouring country if not allowed to land in Honduras.

The interim government, installed hours after the coup last week, argues that the removal of Mr. Zelaya was justified by what it views as his illegal attempts to extend presidential terms in office beyond a single four-year-term.

Mr. Micheletti's government said it had contacted the OAS to express its willingness to enter dialogue. But Foreign Minister Enrique Ortez said that offer would not include any return to power by Mr. Zelaya.

"That is not negotiable," Mr. Ortez said.

"We're going to have to wait and see what it is that they want to talk about," the senior U.S. administration official said.

But the official said that the OAS was looking for a full restoration of democracy, meaning allowing Mr. Zelaya to serve out his term.

The official described the situation in Honduras, an impoverished coffee and textile exporter that has been shaken by Central America's first coup since the Cold War, as "very fluid and challenging."

Mr. Zelaya, a businessman who edged to the left after he came to power in 2006, upset traditional elites, including members of his own Liberal Party, by seeking changes to presidential term limits and by establishing closer ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the region's tough-talking socialist and a long-time adversary of the United States.

Honduras is the third-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti and Nicaragua. The OAS suspension could complicate access to credits for Honduras from regional lender Inter-American Development Bank. The IADB said last week it was suspending loans over the coup.

Piling on the pressure on the interim government, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo planned to travel to El Salvador yesterday to monitor Mr. Zelaya's return, said Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who also planned to be in that group.

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