TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) – Ousted President Manuel Zelaya said Saturday that he would return to Honduras to try to retake office following last week’s military-backed coup, despite warnings of a potentially bloody confrontation and the interim government’s vow to arrest him and put him on trial.

Honduras rebuffed demands by the international community to reinstate Zelaya in the name of constitutional order, thrusting the poor Central American nation deeper into political crisis and isolation.

The Organization of American States met in Washington to consider suspending Honduras’ membership because of the coup – though even before the emergency session, the interim government decided to pull out of the OAS rather than meet its ultimatum to restore Zelaya.

Zelaya called on supporters to prepare to greet him at the airport on Sunday, and on Saturday more than 10,000 of them gathered near the heavily guarded presidential palace and pledged they would be ready if he returned.

“We are going to show up at the Honduras International Airport in Tegucigalpa … and on Sunday we will be in Tegucigalpa,” Zelaya said in a taped statement posted on the Web sites of the Telesur and Cubadebate media outlets.

In comments later Saturday to a local radio station, Zelaya said Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, several foreign ministers and 300 journalists would accompany him.

Zelaya implored supporters to remain peaceful.

“I ask all farmers, residents, Indians, young people and all workers’ groups, businessmen and friends … to accompany me on my return to Honduras,” he said earlier. “Do not bring weapons. Practice what I have always preached, which is nonviolence. Let them be the ones who use violence, weapons and repression.

“I hold the coup plotters responsible for the lives of each and every person,” he added.

Zelaya’s vow to return set up a showdown between supporters of the ousted president, who hail mostly from the country’s poor and middle class, and largely well-to-do backers of the coup that ousted him, who have held their own daily marches in support of Roberto Micheletti, the congressional president tapped by lawmakers to finish out the six months left in Zelaya’s term.

Tegucigalpa Archbishop Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez urged Zelaya to stay away, saying Saturday in a statement read on radio and television that “your return to the country could unleash a bloodbath.”

The new government has imposed a nightly curfew and limited Hondurans’ constitutional rights during it, but grenades have exploded almost daily outside government buildings and businesses nonetheless.

The Micheletti government has charged Zelaya with 18 criminal acts including treason and failing to implement more than 80 laws approved by Congress since taking office in 2006, and vows to arrest him if he returns.

The OAS had given the Honduran government until Saturday to reinstate Zelaya or face suspension, but in a letter read on state television Friday night, Micheletti said that “the OAS is a political organization, not a court, and it can’t judge us.”

“The government rejects the attempts of the OAS to impose unilateral resolutions,” the letter said.

Zelaya was expected to address a meeting of the OAS in Washington later Saturday, and the group’s assistant secretary-general, Albert Ramdin, said the OAS did not recognize the current Honduran government – making its withdrawal from the group illegitimate.

Zelaya was taken from his home at gunpoint by soldiers and flown into exile June 25, after months of pushing for a constitutional referendum that Honduras’ courts and Congress had called illegal. Many suspected the referendum was an attempt by Zelaya to remain in power after his term ends in January, though he denied that.

The populist son of a wealthy rancher who adopted an increasingly fiery leftist tone in recent months, Zelaya has been traveling throughout Central America since his ouster building support.

He promised to return to Honduras to retake the presidency as the international community – everyone from the United Nations and U.S. President Barack Obama to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro – lined up to support him and condemn the military uprising.

OAS suspension would likely mean economic sanctions and active diplomatic encouragement to other organizations around the hemisphere to halt aid and loans to Honduras, which could further destabilize an already volatile and desperately poor nation plagued by drug and gang violence.

“The coup government doesn’t care what the world says,” said Luis Sosa, a leader of the leftist Bloque Popular. “The economic consequences are going to be tough, given that the international community is going to suspend its aid and financing.”

Micheletti insisted the government’s withdrawal from the OAS means economic sanctions will not apply, but many here aren’t so sure.

“They totally screwed us. We are all going to have to start working as farmers and grow our own food, just so we’ll have something to eat,” said Santos Antonio Ortiz, a 20-year-old mechanic. “They have ensured that those who will really suffer are us poor people.”

The new government bristles at descriptions of Zelaya’s ouster as a coup, saying it followed the law and removed a president who was attempting to hold an illegal referendum.

Billboards proclaiming Micheletti the “legitimate and constitutional” president have begun to pop up, as have bumper stickers proclaiming “I love Honduras. I defend the constitution.” The interim government has also taken to the radio and television airwaves with jingles, part of a campaign to win over those who have yet to choose sides.

“I’m just waiting for the military and the politicians to decide what happens to us,” retiree Hilda Alvarez said Saturday. “I hope it’s soon.”


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