WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday agreed to meet with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, as U.S. and other diplomats intensified their efforts to solve a crisis that has turned into a showdown with coup leaders and threatens to produce more bloodshed.
The meeting could take place as early as today, a senior administration official said. Zelaya told reporters he was flying to Washington Monday night from Central America.
The talks took on additional urgency after two Zelaya supporters were killed Sunday during a boisterous demonstration at the airport in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where the de facto government denied permission for Zelaya's plane to land. The plane circled the airport twice, then flew on to Nicaragua.
The Clinton meeting would mark the highest-level contact between Zelaya and the Obama administration since the June 28 coup, when the military detained the leftist leader and expelled him from the country. The Obama administration has condemned the coup.
But until now, Clinton has worked behind the scenes, consulting with foreign ministers from Mexico and other countries as the U.S. government publicly coordinated its efforts through the Organization of American States.
The Honduran crisis has presented the biggest test yet of the Obama administration's Latin America policy, which seeks to establish more cooperative relations in a region where the United States wields enormous influence.
Peter Hakim, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said it was crucial for the U.S. government to show leadership in resolving the crisis.
"The worst thing is to create a long-term situation where you have an extraordinarily polarized politics, and a sort of residue of distrust, that prevents the holding of free, fair and credible elections come November," he said. A successor to Zelaya was scheduled to be chosen in a November vote.
The military forced Zelaya out after he defied Supreme Court orders and promoted a nonbinding referendum that many thought could lead to a constitutional change eliminating the one-term limit for presidents.
Honduras' de facto government intensified its efforts to reach a resolution to the crisis Monday, forming a four-person commission to open negotiations with the OAS, according to a senior Honduran official. He said the commission was expected to hold talks with OAS officials and representatives of member countries.
The OAS suspended the Central American country early Sunday after giving it 72 hours to reinstate Zelaya.
The government of Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president, says that Zelaya's return is not negotiable and insists that his ouster was legal. His return to power is opposed by the military and the National Congress.