WASHINGTON - Confirming that that exiled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has secretly returned to Tegucigalpa, the U.S. State Department Monday appealed for calm and reiterated its recognition that he is the legitimate president.
"We have confirmed that he is in Honduras. Where exactly he is, I don't know," the department's spokesman, Ian Kelly, told reporters during his midday press briefing, shortly before photos of Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital began circulating on the Internet.
"At this point, all I can say is (to) re-iterate our almost daily call on both sides to exercise restraint and refrain from... any activities that could provoke violence," he added, noting that Washington still considered Zelaya to be the "democratically elected and constitutional leader of Honduras".
That message was echoed by the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza.
"The constitutional president of Honduras, Jose Manuel Zelaya, is currently in Tegucigalpa at the Embassy of Brazil," he said in a statement from OAS headquarters here.
"I would like to call for calm to all stakeholders in this process and stress to the authorities of the de facto government that they should be responsible for the safety of President Zelaya and the Embassy of Brazil," he added.
Zelaya's return comes as a serious embarrassment to the de facto government in Tegucigalpa headed by Roberto Micheletti, who was elected interim president by members of the Honduran Congress after army units seized Zelaya and flew him into exile Jun. 28.
But it also poses an unexpected foreign policy challenge to the administration of President Barack Obama on the eve of this week's U.N. General Assembly meeting, where Obama plans to serve briefly as president of the Security Council.
While it has long insisted that Zelaya be restored to office, the administration has also complained about his previous efforts to return to Honduras in the absence of a pre-arranged settlement - as worked out in talks earlier this summer mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and representatives of both Zelaya and the de facto regime.
Indeed, when Zelaya tried to return to Honduras in July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the attempt "reckless" in what was widely interpreted as a deliberate distancing by Washington from his cause.
Nonetheless, the administration has stood by its recognition of Zelaya as the legitimate president and has tried to gradually increase pressure on the Micheletti government to agree to the Arias Accord.
Immediately after Zelaya's ouster, Washington suspended some 20 million dollars worth of bilateral military and economic assistance and supported moves at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to freeze disbursements to Tegucigalpa.
In August, it cancelled the U.S. visas of four senior officials of the de facto regime, an action which it extended to 17 other officials ten days ago.
Earlier this month, the State Department halted more bilateral economic aid, including 11 million dollars from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the last instalment of a five-year, 215-million-dollar grant initiated by the administration of President George W. Bush. At the same time, the State Department hinted that it would not recognise elections to be held this fall unless Zelaya was restored to office.
Each step has evoked major protests from many Republican lawmakers here who have depicted Zelaya's ouster as an effort to save democracy in Honduras from the designs of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with whom Zelaya had become increasingly associated during his presidency. Indeed, at least one Republican senator has held up the confirmation of Obama's top Latin America aides for months in order to press the administration to drop its support for Zelaya.
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a right-wing Cuban American who also serves as the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, has been among an outspoken group of right-wing politicians and columnists who have argued that Zelaya's ouster by the military was justified under the Honduran constitution and that Washington should oppose his restoration and recognise the Micheletti regime as an interim government pending elections to be held this fall.
"By withholding support for these elections absent the return of Manuel Zelaya, the U.S. is imposing prerequisites that run contrary to the rule of law and the Honduran constitution," Ros-Lehtinen declared in a release issued Monday morning before Zeleya's return became known. Her office had no comment on the latest events at press time.
Groups here that have supported Zelaya's restoration, however, expressed satisfaction over the latest news, even as they voiced concern about the possibility of violence, especially if the de facto regime attempts to arrest Zelaya or confront his supporters who have reportedly been rallying around the Brazilian Embassy.
"I think it's brilliant that he went to the Brazilian Embassy, because the prestige and stature of Brazil and (President Luiz Inacio) Lula (da Silva) is unmatched in the region," said Vicki Gass, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group here.
"Had it been any other embassy, especially Venezuela's, the situation could have been much more explosive, and would be used by the pro-coup side to bolster claims that Chavez was pulling the strings," she said.
Brazil's apparent agreement to host Zelaya also increases the likelihood that Washington will add its weight to his cause, if only because the Obama administration has made cultivating close ties with Brasilia a top regional priority.
At the same time, the fact that the de facto regime appears to retain control over the army also gives them leverage, particularly at a time when Obama will take centre stage at the United Nations, which has consistently called for Zelaya's return.
"The question is, will this go from one impasse to another," said Gass. "Will the de facto regime continue to be intransigeant, or will they see this as an opportunity to try to bring this a peaceful conclusion. The concern is that they won't and that violence will erupt as the pro-constitutional side clashes with the pro-coup side."
"This could be a recipe for violence," said Cynthia Arnson, the head of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Centre for International Scholars here. "It's brinkmanship at its height and it's hard to know what's going to happen next," she said.