Embassy an uncomfortable refuge for Honduras' Zelaya

Hostile troops ring the building, water is limited and food supplies short, but ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya appears dead set on holding out in his temporary refuge at the Brazilian embassy.

The two-story embassy in Tegucigalpa is at the center of a political standoff with Zelaya holed up inside after sneaking into the country earlier this week, three months after he was exiled by a de facto government that then vowed to arrest him if he returned home.

Inside, Zelaya, his wife and one of his sons share four rooms with around 40 ex-government officials and followers, who take turns to sleep on the floor and two sofas.

For Zelaya, there is the relative luxury of a green inflatable mattress, witnesses say.

"He is resisting, just like the people are resisting," said Zoe, the toppled president's daughter as she waited outside the embassy in a jeep filled with food, water, medicine and clothes she hoped to deliver inside.

Police and troops with M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders have blockaded the embassy, sealing off access to the narrow road leading past the small building a few meters from a bustling main street.

Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, was ousted in June and spirited out of Honduras in what has spiraled into Central America's worst crisis in years.

On Monday, he sneaked back and sought refuge in the embassy but the de facto government that took over Honduras after the coup wants him out.

Now, Zelaya spends his time taking calls and speaking to the media from inside the embassy. Others pass the hours sleeping, washing their only set of clothes and watching news programs on the internet connection of an embassy desktop.

A Reuters photograph showed Zelaya sitting inside the embassy, wearing a waistcoat and his trade-mark white cowboy hat, boots up on a chair as he took a call.

Water supply is intermittent, a Reuters photographer inside says, and when it flows there is a rush for the bathrooms. A humanitarian group has supplied typical Honduran food of rice, beans and tortillas. Zelaya's daughter sought to bring in milk, sugar and water purifying tablets.

"I handed over food, I handed over clothes, and let them know that we're here for them," said Sergio Guimaraes, the Brazilian representative of UNICEF who brought supplies to two embassy staff inside. "The order is that no one can enter."

Banging Shields, Marches

Troops laying siege to the building have tightened security. Officials used a truck-mounted speaker to blast the embassy with harsh sounds and on Wednesday night troops marched past banging riot shields with batons, witnesses say.

Even local residents are struggling. A hulking police officer in a jeans and a green ski mask on Thursday guided one woman back to her home on the other side of the cordon.

At night, rumors buzz about imminent police raids or tear gas canisters getting dropped into the plumbing.

"There is worry. They can't come inside because they can't violate Brazilian territory," Hugo Suazo, a former vice minister with Zelaya, said by telephone from inside.

Zelaya has said he is a target of an assassination plot and told the Miami Herald he believed mercenaries were trying to poison him with radiation and gases.

De facto president Roberto Micheletti says Zelaya can stay in the embassy for "five to 10 years" if he wants, but he must face local justice.

Ecuador's former president Lucio Gutierrez holed up in the Brazilian ambassador's house in Quito for four days in 2005 after he was toppled. With protesters demanding he not be allowed to leave, Gutierrez was whisked out of the envoy's home when Brazil granted him asylum.

But with Micheletti and Zelaya both holding out, the Tegucigalpa standoff could drag on longer.

Zoe, Zelaya's daughter, hopes the embassy stay is just a temporary bump on her father's road back to power. "This regime has its days counted," she said. "It is just a matter of hours."

[Source: By Patrick Markey, Reuters, Tegucigalpa, 24sep09]

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