Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fighting Erupts in Mexico; 56 Killed Rebels Declare War in Name of Indians

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fighting Erupts in Mexico; 56 Killed Rebels Declare War in Name of Indians

Article excerpt

Government soldiers fought hundreds of armed guerrillas on Sunday after the rebels seized San Cristobal de Las Casas and three nearby towns in southern Mexico only hours into the new year.

The assaults Saturday killed 26 people. At least 30 more perished in heavy fighting as the rebels began retreating into the forested hills with soldiers in pursuit, the nation's defense secretary said Sunday night.

The guerrillas - perhaps as many as 1,000 - declared war on the Mexican government in the name of the country's impoverished Indians and a previously unheard of group, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The rebellion took place in Chiapas state, which borders Guatemala and is mainly mountain and jungle. The unrest was the latest of many uprisings over the years in Chiapas, one of Mexico's most impoverished and isolated states.

Although the rebels vowed to fight on until they reached Mexico City, they did not appear to represent a serious military threat. Their ranks were filled with young Indian men and women, most of them described by townspeople as having more discipline than training. Some carried assault rifles, but others had pistols, ancient carbines and even toy rifles made of wood.

The guerrillas said they were all Mexicans and had no ties to Guatemalan leftist groups. The source of their weapons, ammunition and uniforms - army fatigues with red bandannas - was unclear.

What sort of political challenge they may present to the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was also unclear.

So long as the rebels remained in the towns they occupied, government forces were restrained, although soldiers and rebels were exchanging fire in the marketplace of Ocosingo. Chiapas state officials offered to negotiate with the guerrillas to try to resolve their demands.

Army units took up positions around some of the towns but made no attempt to counterattack until the rebels began to pull back. Then truckloads of soldiers poured into the area. Helicopters swooped overhead, and soldiers opened fire with machine guns on guerrillas trekking through the wooded hills.

On Sunday afternoon, Rafael Gonzalez, the Chiapas state secretary of government, said the rebels had killed 26 people when they occupied San Cristobal de Las Casas and the three other towns, Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas. Of these, 22 were police officers and four were civilians, one of them a Mexican Red Cross volunteer, Gonzalez said.

Despite the years of tension in Chiapas and the civil war that has dragged on for three decades across the border in Guatemala, no recent incident in Chiapas rivals the one that began on New Year's Day. …

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