ESTELI, Nicaragua - Honduras's de facto government shut its southern border with Nicaragua Thursday, hoping to block President Manuel Zelaya's bid to return home a month after he was ousted in a coup.
Zelaya on Thursday completed the first stage of a dramatic bid to end his military-imposed exile, traveling to the border town of Esteli, northern Nicaragua, and vowing to cross the nearby frontier on Friday or Saturday.
Defying government threats to arrest him and multiple warnings that the move would likely prompt bloodshed, Zelaya boarded a 50-vehicle caravan in the Nicaraguan capital Managua, accompanied by a phalanx of media and supporters.
In Honduras, the military-backed government responded with restrictions on incoming border crossings, as hundreds as Zelaya supporters headed for the coffee-growing frontier region, which straddles the pan-American highway.
"I'm walking toward the Honduran border. I hope that a good portion of the Honduran people can get through the barriers," Zelaya said on arrival in Esteli.
Honduran troops expelled Zelaya from Honduras at gunpoint on June 28 in a move supported by the courts and Congress.
But the deposed president said he hoped that Honduran soldiers awaiting him would "lower their guns" when they saw their elected leader and join his ranks to "raise the banner of democracy."
"We go with the white flag of peace to proclaim reconciliation for the Honduran people," he said.
"I know that I am in danger, at risk, but I am ready to make the sacrifice, because Honduras needs peaceful change."
Zelaya announced he would return home after talks with the interim government, brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, collapsed.
In a first attempt, on July 6, he tried to fly into the Tegucigalpa airport, but was blocked by military units deployed on the runway, while on the ground, two of his supporters died in clashes with troops.
Regional powers, including the United States, have backed Zelaya's quest to regain office, but urged him not to return for fear of prompting bloodshed in a country some say is teetering on the brink of civil war.
In an increasingly polarized Honduras, Zelaya supporters called a national strike Thursday, with teachers unions suspending classes across the country.
In the Honduran town of El Paraiso, 10 kilometers (six miles) from Nicaragua, supporters of "Mel" as he is known, congregated in defiance of a 12-hour curfew in the steamy border region.
"The people are here to defend the constitution and democracy," Jorge Elicer Gaitan, a local trade unionist told AFP.
Zelaya aide Alan Fajardo said the president would return when the conditions were ready: sufficient citizen participation and an element of surprise were key conditions, he added.
The high-stakes gamble unfolded as international rights groups slammed the government of interim Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti for a host of human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions.
A 15-person team of international human rights group representatives meanwhile said there had been "grave and systematic violations" in Honduras over the last month.
The groups mentioned extrajudicial executions during the curfew, pressure on news media opposed to Micheletti's government and the "suspension of fundamental rights of Hondurans."
Honduran human rights commissioner Ramon Angel Custodio, who supports the interim government, denied the charges made by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law and Spain's Federation of Associations in the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
Hopes for a mediated solution to the crisis were scuttled when Micheletti's negotiators rejected fresh proposals late Wednesday to allow Zelaya to return to power until his term ended in January.
Acting Honduran foreign minister Carlos Lopez Contreras told CNN Zelaya's return as president was "impossible."
Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end to civil wars in Central America, wanted Zelaya to head a national unity government.
In return, interim leaders would have seen sanctions lifted, a limited amnesty for political crimes, and a bar on Zelaya seeking changes to the constitution.