TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Toppled Honduran president Manuel Zelaya emerged from months holed up in a Brazilian embassy compound and flew into exile on Wednesday, ending a months-long political crisis as Honduras swore in a new president.
Zelaya, deposed in a coup last June, boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic shortly after President Porfirio Lobo, an opposition leader elected in November, took office.
Thousands of Zelaya’s supporters cheered and shouted at the airport as his plane took off.
Zelaya’s exit marks the closure of seven months of political chaos in the impoverished nation of 7 million people set off by his ouster by troops in June. He was flown out of the country but returned in September and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy.
“They’re never going to let him come back,” supporter Carla Lopez said, holding her two-year-old daughter and choking back tears as she watched Zelaya leave from behind an airport fence.
Others said they believed Zelaya would return one day.
U.S. and Latin American governments slammed the coup and many countries denounced Lobo’s election on November 29 under a de facto government as illegitimate, but months of mediation and talks failed to reverse the coup and restore Zelaya.
Zelaya, his wife and daughter flew to the Dominican Republic on the plane of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, who invited Zelaya to live in his country and attended Lobo’s swearing.
Lobo received the presidential sash in a ceremony in the national stadium attended by foreign leaders, the military and supporters, and vowed to move beyond the chaos of recent months.
“Today we want to heal the wounds of the past,” the new president said. He later accompanied Zelaya to the airport.
The U.S. state department said Lobo’s swearing-in would help heal relations with Honduras, but that the United States had not determined when it might restore aid programs for the Central American country.
The Honduran Congress granted Zelaya political amnesty on Tuesday but the move does not affect criminal charges hanging over him and did not alter his plan to leave.
Several thousand supporters massed at the airport saw him off with red flags now associated with Zelaya’s camp and cowboy hats with red bandannas emblazoned with his nickname “Mel.” Some 200 police guarded the runway.
“We are sad he is leaving, but he will be back soon,” 38-year-old lab technician Florita Milla said.
Zelaya’s departure marks a failure of regional diplomacy to convince the de facto leaders to step down. President Barack Obama, trying to improve U.S. relations with Latin America, backed months of negotiations that failed to restore Zelaya.
Brazil, flexing its regional diplomatic muscles, gave Zelaya refuge in its embassy when he snuck back into Honduras in September. But his supporters turned the diplomatic compound into a chaotic camp-out and troops ringed the building.
De facto leader Roberto Micheletti, appointed by Congress the day of the coup, held on to office even after the United States cut military aid and multinational banks froze loans.
Human rights groups documented serious abuses, including deaths, as security forces cracked down on pro-Zelaya protesters and media outlets in the weeks following the coup.
Hondurans are eager to leave the turmoil of recent months behind, and Lobo, a wealthy landowner from the same ranching province as Zelaya, said he wants to move beyond the region’s worst political crisis in decades and get aid flowing again.
“Due to the political crisis, Honduras has lost $2 billion dollars in foreign aid and international investment,” he said.
Reliant on coffee and textile exports and migrant remittances, Honduras is hurting from the global downturn.
U.S. Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, called for a full restoration of aid.
Business leaders and political foes from Zelaya’s own party accused him of violating the constitution to stay in power, mimicking moves by Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Zelaya denies the charges, but there is still an order out for his arrest. Under the deal struck with Lobo to leave Honduras for the Dominican Republic, he can avoid prosecution.
He has promised to return one day but his political future seems dim. His exile could also limit Chavez’s regional reach.
As a sign Honduras is trying to erase memories of the coup, a Supreme Court judge cleared military leaders on Tuesday of charges of abuses of power on the day of the coup.
Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Gustavo Palencia; writing by Mica Rosenberg, editing by Anthony Boadle