TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A series of makeshift memorials on the road around the rugged airport give morbid clues to the bloodshed that shook this city Sunday.
Close to the fence shielding the runways is a wooden crucifix and portrait of Jesus above a huge patch of dry red blood on the concrete.
Ten yards away, a circle surrounds a chunk of skull the size of an apple.
Two more yards ahead, lays a golden M16 bullet, that had fired straight through the head of the 19-year-old victim, hurling part of his cranium more than 30 feet from his body.
The shooting at protesters by soldiers that killed at least one, marks a bloody turn in the Honduras putsch that has polarized this poor Central American nation and sparked international condemnation.
For the first week since soldiers flew elected leftist President Manuel Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint, the power shift could be accurately termed a “bloodless coup.”
But when Zelaya attempted to fly back into the country in a small jet, troops shot live ammunition into the crowd to keep control of the airport so they could stop the ousted president landing.
Such use of troops against protesters — a tactic that has not been seen in this sweltering republic since the bad old days of the Cold War — raises fears the dispute over the presidency could give way to a drawn out and violent conflict.
“The soldiers shot at peaceful protesters without regard for human life,” said teacher and protest leader Luis Sosa, standing with a shaken crowd after the barrage of gunfire. “This shows that the regime of coup leaders has taken a violent and authoritarian direction.”
The de facto government blames the ousted president and his determination to return to his homeland for the confrontation.
Interim President Roberto Micheletti had announced earlier Sunday that Zelaya, who planned to fly in with the presidents of Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador, would not be given permission to land and the other heads of state were not welcome.
“No other president is going to come here in this impetuous form,” he said. “We have our sovereign borders.”
But Zelaya called the bluff of his nemesis and brashly zoomed into Honduran airspace.
Tens of thousands of his supporters had massed to welcome him at the airport, in the biggest show of his strength since he was forced out of power a week earlier.
For one moment it seemed they could succeed, with police who blocked the road moving to let the protesters through after negotiation, showing the corps may have split loyalties.
But the airport grounds itself were guarded by soldiers bearing automatic rifles.
An hour before the plane was due to land, some protesters started breaking the airport fence, and the troops unleashed their gunfire onto the streets around the facility.
Thousands scattered and ran; a few foolhardy protesters threw rocks back. A fast food chicken and seafood restaurant had all its windows blown out, its customers sprinting away so fast that one women left a shoe amid the shattered glass.
The gunfire crackled in fits and bursts for almost 20 minutes, as protesters hid behind breeze block walls or ran into homes of kindly local residents.
When the smoke eventually cleared, the 19-year-old lay dead — identified as Isis Obed Murillo from the rural province of Olancho — and 30 others were taken into hospital with wounds, several which could prove fatal.
Honduran journalist Cesar Silva stood close to Murillo as the bullet went through his head and helped pull his body into a car.
“He was still slightly conscious even after the bullet went through. But then he passed away,” Silva said, the victim’s blood covering his arms and green T-shirt. “He was not trying to break through the fence or anything. He was just standing there and didn’t get down fast enough.”
Shortly after the shooting, Zelaya’s plane appeared in the sky to the thunderous cheer of supporters.
But with troops and soldiers blocking the runway, it circled round several times then beat a hasty retreat to Salvador via a refueling stop in Nicaragua.
As he flew over, Zelaya said he regretted his inability to land in a live interview with Latin American network Telesur.
“I’m doing everything I can. If I had a parachute I would immediately jump out of this plane, ” he said from the airplane.
From Salvador, Zelaya promised to continue his struggle to regain the presidency, raising speculation that he may sneak over the mountainous land border into his homeland.
Any such incursion could spark more violence, with the threat of two proclaimed governments dividing the nation into civil war.
But for Zelaya and his allies in governments across Latin America, it is crucial to not let the coup set a precedent for taking presidents out in putsches as they were for much of the 20th century.
“What we see is a return of the right in Latin America,” Zelaya said as he flew over his the Honduran mountains and banana fields. “ It is a more reactionary right, more prone to killing, more fascist than in the past.”
Read more on the coup in Honduras:
Protests against military coup grow as OAS suspends Honduras
In Honduras, a media crackdown
A coup without friends