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Breakthrough in Honduras Deadlock


Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya protest near the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Honduras' de facto regime and Zelaya have agreed to reopen talks, raising hopes for a breakthrough in a crisis that has gripped the country for over three months, a top diplomat said. (AFP/Yuri Cortez)

TEGUCIGALPA - Honduran de facto leaders and deposed President Manuel Zelaya have agreed to restart talks, in a breakthrough in a crisis that has gripped the nation, a top envoy said.

John Biehl, an envoy of the Organization of American States, said Friday Zelaya and de facto leader Robert Micheletti would not meet face-to-face for now.

But he told reporters that representatives of the two camps would begin meeting next week, possibly before the arrival Wednesday of a diplomatic mission of regional foreign ministers and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza.

"There is going to be a call to dialogue," said Biehl, who is Insulza's representative. "The current government will make it, and the other party will accept. That has been agreed."

The announcement followed Zelaya's surprise return to the country on September 21 -- to the Brazilian embassy -- which triggered protests and a new curb on civil rights, but also boosted efforts to break the deadlock.

Micheletti confirmed that his camp had began dialogue "officially with Mister Zelaya's people," in comments to reporters late Friday.

The de facto leader also revealed that he had had a secret meeting with OAS chief Insulza on Tuesday at a US military base.

"Yes, he (Jose Miguel Insulza) came to Honduras. He was here the other day in Palmerola," Micheletti said, refering to the US base north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

"We spoke about everything a little," said the increasingly isolated leader.

The business community and even the army behind the coup have given indications of frustration over the current impasse as the economic and diplomatic costs of the crisis mount.

Many observers have cited a first, rejected, peace accord, known as the San Jose agreement -- as a likely basis for a new agreement.

That includes the reinstatement of Zelaya to the presidency and elections as a way to end the stalemate.

The interim regime, which wants to press charges of treason, corruption and abuse of authority against Zelaya, said the Arias plan could become an "acceptable agreement" with some changes.

Micheletti, who met with a group of sympathetic US lawmakers Friday, was expected Monday to lift a widely-criticized crackdown on civil liberties, following pressure even from the courts and congress that backed the coup.

Cracks appeared in the regime over the clampdown amid concern that it would derail the November 29 elections.

It raised a howl of protest from the international community.

The September 26 decree "damaged civil liberties like nothing else has in a long time here. That's why it must be reversed immediately," US ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens told journalists Friday.

Under the sweeping new powers, baton-wielding riot police and soldiers have evicted dozens of Zelaya supporters who had been camping out in the capital this week, and raided two main dissident media outlets.

Berta Oliva, head of a local rights watchdog, said Friday that at least 12 people had been killed and scores wounded in political violence since the coup.

Oliva cited "scores and scores of reports" of people wounded or beaten during the protests.

Regime officials only acknowledge one death -- an activist killed July 5 in clashes with authorities who blocked Zelaya's first attempt to return home at the capital's airport.

Zelaya was ousted by soldiers at gunpoint after he riled the country's political and business leaders by calling for a referendum to change the constitution -- seen as a bid to stay in office -- and boosted his ties with Venezuela's firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez.

His surprise return to the country on September 21 set off protests and the clampdown, but also intensified efforts to resolve the three-month-old crisis.

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