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Ex-leader returns to Honduras 2 years after ouster

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Former President Manuel Zelaya's return to Honduras almost two years after being forced into exile by a military-backed coup has ended a crippling political crisis and paved the way for the impoverished country's reintegration into the international community.

The Organization of American States, which expelled Honduras following the June 2009 coup, is expected to bring it back into the fold in meetings in the coming week.

The Venezuelan-owned plane carrying Zelaya to Honduras' capital from neighboring Nicaragua on Saturday was greeted by thousands of his dancing and singing supporters who had set up a tent camp nearby in anticipation of his arrival.

Wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, Zelaya triumphantly told supporters to pursue change peacefully and called for an end to coups.

"The problem of poverty, of corruption, of the great challenges of Latin American societies won't be resolved through violence, but through more democracy," Zelaya, 59, told supporters in a plaza near the airport.

Zelaya was thrown out of office — and the country — by soldiers for ignoring a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum asking Hondurans if they wanted an assembly to retool the constitution. The opposition had called it a bid by Zelaya stay in power by allowing presidential re-election, while his supporters said the assembly was to reform Honduras' outdated economic and political structures.

The coup drew condemnation from around the world as a reminder of Latin America's antidemocratic past of dictatorships and military coups. Honduras' post-coup interim government resisted international pressure to restore Zelaya — who took up exile in the Dominican Republic — and in late 2009 current President Porfirio Lobo was elected in a previously scheduled vote.

While some governments began recognizing Honduras after Lobo took office, Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador demanded that Zelaya be allowed to return home without facing criminal charges before ending Honduras' pariah status.

Honduran courts recently dropped the corruption charges and arrest warrants pending against Zelaya, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week brokered a deal for the ousted leader's safe return home.

Zelaya has returned to a country that has enacted many of the changes he was advocating when he was whisked out of the country at gunpoint.

A congress dead set against his plan to hold a referendum on whether to change the constitution has since amended the constitution to allow just that. Under the internationally broker agreement, Zelaya will be allowed to form his own political party and potentially end the country's rigid, two-party system.

On Saturday, Zelaya indicated he wasn't backing down from some of the proposals that got him ousted in the first place, saying he supported the idea of a constitutional assembly.

"I've come to look for an exit from our problems. We should look for an exit between the bad people who want to stay in the crisis and the good people who want to leave it," he said. "The constituent assembly is a democratic exit that we have."

Zelaya was accompanied on his flight home by his wife, two of his daughters, several former officials in his government, ex-Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Chavez lauded his return in a Twitter message: "Mel Zelaya returned to his Honduran fatherland! It's a great victory for the Honduran people! Down with dictatorships! Long live Popular Power! Long live Real Democracy."

Thousands of people greeted Zelaya at the airport on Saturday, many wearing the red and black colors of the Zelaya-allied National Popular Resistance Front, which formed after the coup.

"Honduras is in party mode," said Zelaya supporter Ronnie Huete, of Radio Globo. One sign in the crowd read: "700 days from the coup, here no one is surrendering."

Not everyone, however, felt like celebrating Zelaya's return.

Zelaya is "repudiated by the majority of Hondurans," a group calling itself the Patriotic Committee for the Defense of the Constitution said in a message broadcast by radio station HRN.

Irma Acosta, a former congresswoman from the governing National Party, said that Zelaya "should focus on singing and playing his guitar, which he does well ... and forget about politics, because his time has passed."

After the afternoon rally, Zelaya met with Lobo, OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza and the foreign ministers of Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia.

In a statement, Insulza praised Lobo "for bringing about the restoration of democracy in his country, after the break suffered with the destitution of the ex-president."

Agrarian Reform Minister Cesar Ham told reporters that the meeting of Lobo and Zelaya was "warm and emotional."

"What a lot of people don't understand is that they are friends. They studied in the same school, knew each other from childhood and their families have had a good relationship for 50 years," said Ham, who was present at the meeting. Zelaya and Lobo are both wealthy landowners from the eastern province of Olancho province. Zelaya's supporters said he will visit his native town of Catacamas for a few days starting Sunday.

The deal to bring Zelaya back to Honduras — called the Cartagena accord because it was unveiled in the Colombian city — didn't call for his immediate return to power

"The Cartagena agreement has only one message: no more coup d'etats in Honduras and in Latin America," Zelaya said.

During his speech, Zelaya repeated accusations that Washington supported the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, which replaced Zelaya after his ouster. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials publicly criticized the coup days afterward.

The OAS is expected to discuss Honduras in Washington in the coming days and at the organization's general assembly in El Salvador June 5-7.

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