Supporters hole up with ousted Honduran president

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - September 24, 2009

Daily life has become increasingly challenging for ousted President Manuel Zelaya and his die-hard loyalists since they took shelter Monday at the Brazilian Embassy in the Honduran capital - the latest front in Zelaya's fight to be reinstated.

"I haven't washed or changed since I arrived and I've slept in my clothes on the floor," said Milton Benitez, 32, a writer who says he didn't vote for Zelaya but is here now to support his restoration to power.

Benitez, dressed in an ever-grungier T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of the late Latin American revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, said he has been able to brush his teeth only once - and that was with a toothbrush that nine others used as well.

Bathing has been nearly impossible, first because authorities cut off the water supply and then - after service was restored - because the embassy's reserve tank ran dry, he said. A truck arrived with a new supply late Wednesday.

"We are living here in inhuman conditions," Benitez told an Associated Press reporter, one of a handful of journalists who pushed their way into the embassy Monday along with crowds of Zelaya backers before troops and police sealed off the building.

Armed authorities have surrounded the diplomatic mission. Officials from the interim government, which overthrew Zelaya and flew him into forced exile in June, say they will respect Brazil's demand that they not storm the embassy, but swear they will arrest Zelaya if he steps foot outside of it.

Adding to the suspense are unanswered questions about how Zelaya, most recently exiled in Nicaragua, made it into the country undetected.

According to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch Zelaya ally, the deposed leader traveled by plane, in the trunks of cars and on tractors - all with the help of supporters that included Honduran military backers.

"It was a secret operation, one of deception," Chavez told reporters in New York late Wednesday.

The Venezuelan leader said that he and Zelaya staged a fake telephone conversation - just in case anyone was listening - in which they discussed plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

Chavez did attend. Zelaya flew to El Salvador, where he met Sunday with leaders of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front Party, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said. But Funes, a member of the party and also Zelaya's ally, said Monday that his government did not help Zelaya reach Honduras.

Chavez refused to reveal any other details, except to say that "Zelaya is the one who came up with the plan."

"You know that he is a cowboy ... brave. He has courage."

For now, the "cowboy" hangs his famous white hat in an embassy office that doubles as his bedroom, where he sleeps on an inflatable mattress.

He regularly talks with his supporters and urges them to "stay calm and be patient," Benitez said.

But tensions are running high: From the first night, rumors have swirled that Honduran soldiers were going to storm the two-story, gated compound and arrest Zelaya.

When a firecracker exploded outside before dawn Tuesday, many leaped to their feet, certain the raid had begun.

Authorities briefly cut off power to the embassy and set up speakers that blared music, apparently to harass those inside.

When Zelaya first arrived here Monday, about 300 supporters, diplomats and reporters packed in with him. By Thursday, fewer than 100 remained, including Zelaya's wife, Xiomara, and several of his former ministers.

After three days without showers and two nights spent sleeping on floors, the embassy's temporary population is becoming increasingly "seasoned."

Some of the residents say they do not even notice the intense aroma because the building's windows are kept open during the day and, as Benitez puts it, "We're all in the same situation."

Meals consist of dry biscuits; bottled water; and rice, beans, and cheese brought in by human rights workers given access to the building. But recipients say the food is rationed and slow to arrive.

One reporter who got his hands on a bag of food brought in by a policeman gave an apple to a friend, who carefully cut it in two to make it last longer.

"We don't know when the next meal will come," said Jorge Ramirez, 25, a student staying at the embassy.

The situation appears to be taking its toll on Zelaya as well. He stared into space Wednesday when supporters raised their fists and vowed to fight for his reinstatement.

Despite the challenges, the ousted president says he has no plans to leave the embassy. He has repeatedly asked to speak with interim President Roberto Micheletti, who has said that he is open to talks with the participation of the Organization of American States.

Zelaya was removed from office in June after he repeatedly ignored court orders to drop plans for a referendum on reforming the constitution. His opponents claimed he wanted to end a constitutional ban on re-election - a charge Zelaya denied.

The Supreme Court ordered his arrest, and the Honduran Congress, alarmed by his increasingly close alliance with both the leftist Chavez and communist Cuba, backed the army as it forced him into exile in Costa Rica.

Zelaya - and most of the world community - insist his ouster was illegal and have called for his restoration to power.

Both sides have proved to be stubborn in the past, with neither of them budging significantly despite rounds of talks mediated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

With no obvious end in sight, Zelaya's remaining supporters are digging in for the long haul.

Developing a routine, the new bunkmates are taking turns handing out food, sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms.

"I plan to stay here until they restore the president," Ramirez said.


Associated Press Writers David Koop in Mexico City, and Sigal Ratner-Arias and Will Weissert in New York, contributed to this report.

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