Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya stood on the edge of his country and called on his fellow Hondurans to resist the coup-installed government.
Then he quickly retreated back to Nicaraguan territory, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed and give negotiations another try.
His foray on Friday brought the Honduran political crisis no closer to a resolution — and irritated some foreign leaders who are trying to help Zelaya reclaim his post.
Still, his brief but dramatic excursion a few meters into his homeland kept up the pressure on the interim government and the international community, highlighting the threat of unrest if the two sides cannot resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Thousands of Hondurans flocked to the border town of El Paraiso to support Zelaya when he planted his cowboy boots on home soil for less than 30 minutes. Defying a curfew, the demonstrators clashed with security forces who fired tear gas.
Shaded by his white cowboy hat, Zelaya encouraged them, saying protesters facing tear gas should “grab the canister and throw it back.”
He warned security forces they would pay for obeying the regime that sent him into exile: “You are risking your careers as police and soldiers.”
Many kilometers away in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, thousands of Zelaya opponents staged their own protest, holding signs reading “Zelaya can return, but to jail.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Zelaya’s trip “reckless” and said it would not help restore democratic and constitutional order in Honduras. Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza had urged Zelaya not to go home without an agreement out of fear it would lead to bloodshed.
Zelaya, a rich rancher who moved to the left and allied himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after being elected, said he had no choice after US-backed talks failed to reinstate him. He said his lightning trip showed the government of interim President Roberto Micheletti was losing control and would be forced to negotiate.
“It’s clear they cannot govern with the people against them and a president in exile,” Zelaya told reporters. “The best thing is to reach an agreement that respects the sovereign will of the people.”
However, it was unclear who would take the lead in bringing the two sides back to the table.
Zelaya, who was spending the night in the northern Nicaraguan town of Ocotal, declined to discuss what he would do next, although he reminded reporters that he had cars and planes available for another attempt to return home.
The previous mediator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, bowed out last week after presenting a final proposal that would restore Zelaya to the presidency and offer amnesty to the coup leaders.
While insisting it still believes in dialogue, the interim government has refused any pact that would reinstate Zelaya, ignoring threats of sanctions from the US and other countries.
Zelaya called for tougher action from the US, Honduras’ biggest trade partner and its source of aid. Washington has already suspended more than US$18 million in military and development assistance. The EU has frozen US$92 million in development aid.
US pressure “has been limited. Its measures have not been effective,” Zelaya said.
“There is a de facto regime ruling with bayonets, and in that sense, the United States has told me they want a peaceful solution. I’m also looking for a peaceful solution,” Zelaya said.