Former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya left his refuge in the Brazilian Embassy and flew into exile Wednesday, ending months of turmoil and his thwarted quest to be restored to power after a June 28 coup that drew international condemnation.
The leftist leader drove past soldiers guarding the diplomatic compound in a 20-car caravan and headed for the airport accompanied by President Porfirio Lobo, said Hilda Cruz, an assistant of Zelaya's wife.
Zelaya was going to the Dominican Republic as a private citizen under a deal signed by Lobo and the Caribbean country's President Leonel Fernandez, who flew to Honduras to accompany the former president. About 6,000 supporters gathered outside the airport yelled "Mel, our friend, the people are with you!" as his plane took off.
Lobo, who was sworn into office hours earlier, had said his first task as president would be providing Zelaya a safe passage out of the country.
"We have emerged from the worst crisis in the democratic history of Honduras," said Lobo, 61, after taking the oath of office. "We want national reconciliation to extend to a necessary and indispensable reconciliation with the international community."
Zelaya, who was ousted in a dispute over changing the Honduran constitution, insisted he was still president up until the moment his four-year constitutional term officially ended Wednesday.
Zelaya left with his wife, two children and an aide after four months holed up in the embassy. The couple had their hair done by a stylist, packed five suitcases and said they were taking Zelaya's guitar and Christmas cards from supporters.
It was a quiet end to his tumultuous struggle to return to power after soldiers stormed his residence and flew him out of the country in his pyjamas.
"He's done. I think at this point, if you are Zelaya, you slink away into the corner and you recoup for a little while," said Heather Berkman, a Honduras expert with the New York-based Eurasia Group. "But I think in the near term, Zelaya is finished as a politician."
The country's institutions moved quickly this week to try to leave the coup behind.
A Supreme Court judge found six generals innocent of abuse of power charges for ordering soldiers to hustle Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint. And Congress voted to approve amnesty for both the military and Zelaya, who had been charged with abuse of power and treason over his defiance of a Supreme Court order to cancel a referendum on changing the constitution.
He remains under investigation for embezzlement in connection with $1.5 million US in government funds.
Opponents said Zelaya wanted to hold on to power by lifting a ban on presidential re-election, as his ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did. Zelaya says he only wanted to give more voice to Honduras' many poor and shake up a stagnant political system dominated by a few wealthy families.
Zelaya slipped back into Honduras in September, hiding in the trunk of a car. He turned up at the Brazilian Embassy to the dismay of interim President Roberto Micheletti and the delight of hundreds of supporters who followed the ousted leader into the diplomatic mission and vowed not to leave until he was restored to power.
As U.S.-brokered talks dragged on and ultimately failed to reverse the coup, the supporters slowly went home. Zelaya urged his backers not to show up at the embassy or stage protests Wednesday, saying he wanted to leave quietly.
"It would interfere with the process of my exit and would complicate things for me," he told Radio Globo from the embassy, where he and his wife have slept on inflatable mattresses.
Zelaya left behind a plastic chess set someone gave him to help pass time. His family snapped photos to remember their time there.
An aide has said Zelaya will likely take up residence in Mexico, but the deposed leader has given no details about his plans.