TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A top diplomat said Thursday he is heading to Honduras to demand the return of the president toppled at gunpoint _ a mission he said is likely to meet rejection, bringing diplomatic and economic punishment for the impoverished Central American nation.
The head of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, said he plans to travel to Honduras on Friday to insist on the restoration of President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup Sunday.
"I will do everything I can. But I think it will be very hard to turn things around in a couple of days," Insulza said at a summit of Caribbean leaders in Georgetown, Guyana. "We are not going to Honduras to negotiate. We are going to Honduras to ask them to change what they have been doing."
The interim government of Roberto Micheletti has so far shown little willingness to do so, arguing that the army acted legally _ on orders of Congress and the Supreme Court _ when it raided Zelaya's house amid the rattle of gunfire and deported him, still in his nightshirt.
Giving a first hint of flexibility, Micheletti said Thursday in response to a reporter's question that he would be open to moving up presidential elections from their scheduled date of Nov. 29 if it would ease the crisis. However, he did not mention any date and neither Zelaya nor any international body has formally proposed that.
Micheletti also said he feared violence if Zelaya returned to Honduras, as he has promised to do this weekend.
"For the peace of the country I would prefer that he did not come, because I do not want one drop of blood shed by any Honduran," the interim leader said.
The OAS says it will suspend Honduras if Zelaya isn't back in office by Saturday, bringing sanctions that could block international aid to one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere.
Nations around the world have promised to shun Micheletti, who was sworn in after the Sunday coup, and the nation already is suffering economic reprisals.
Neighboring countries have imposed trade blockades, major lenders have cut aid, the Obama administration has halted joint military operations and all European Union ambassadors have abandoned the Honduran capital.
That has left few channels for negotiating a solution.
Communication has been so limited that an influential pro-Micheletti congresswoman, Marcia Villeda de Facusse, said she learned of the OEA mission on Thursday from news reports.
"Nobody here knows anything," she said. "We don't have any idea if that commission is coming or who will be in it."
She said the new foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, had been placed in charge of meeting with visiting OAS officials once they arrive, and that he would use "abundant proof to try and show that Zelaya violated our laws and that his government damaged everyone in the country."
Insulza said he would not meet with members of Micheletti's government to avoid legitimizing it. But he will meet with leaders of the Supreme Court and Congress _ institutions that approved the coup _ "basically to clarify exactly what our position is."
It was unclear if Insulza would meet with U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens during the visit.
Micheletti said Insulza would be welcome in Honduras, and "If he wants to talk with me, I'll receive him gladly."
Zelaya's defense minister, Aristides Mejia, suggested a possible "peaceful arrangement" to the dispute in an interview broadcast Thursday by HRN radio.
He said Zelaya has sworn off any idea of re-election and is willing to drop plans to rewrite the constitution that led to his ouster. Zelaya had ignored a Supreme Court order to halt the constitutional revamp, which many Hondurans believed was meant to let him stay in power.
Zelaya said Thursday that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu have been invited to join him when he returns to Honduras this weekend. That sets up a potentially explosive conflict with local officials who have vowed to have him arrested on charges ranging from corruption to treason.
Zelaya, at a news conference in Panama City on Thursday, said he will spend the next two days traveling in Central America. He arrived in El Salvador late Thursday, where he will hold a private meeting with President Mauricio Funes.
"I have no fear of returning," Zelaya said. "I have never been afraid, and I have acted on my principles, for which I am prepared to die."
Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro, and his youngest son, a teenager, are staying at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa.
In Honduras, Zelaya's supporters staged their largest demonstration since the coup, as more than 6,000 people marched from a park in front of a military base to a U.N. office to chants of: "Mel our friend, the people are with you!" Police briefly used tear gas, but there were no reports of injuries or arrests.
An equal number of Micheletti backers marched in San Pedro Sula, the country's second largest city.
Police scuffled with Zelaya supporters in that northern city, leaving about a dozen with minor injuries. Police Chief Leonel Sauceda told AP that 78 people were arrested for vandalism, all of them Zelaya supporters. He said a Salvadoran photographer was briefly detained.
Wilkinson reported from Georgetown, Guyana. Associated Press writers Marcos Aleman and Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.