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  55 Killed in Fighting in Southern Mexico

By Tod Robberson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 3, 1994; Page A01

OXCHUC, MEXICO, JAN. 2 -- Pitched gun battles sent the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas into panic today, as the Mexican army struggled to beat back an insurgency by hundreds of Indian guerrillas protesting the gulf between rich and poor in the region.

As many as 55 people, including 22 police and 24 rebels of the newly formed Zapatista National Liberation Army, were reported killed during two days of fighting, which began with a surprise New Year's Day offensive that clearly caught the army off guard. Five regular army soldiers and four civilians also were reported killed.

Rebels reportedly seized control of at least four cities and perhaps a half-dozen villages. In this village, guerrillas appeared to be in full control and unchallenged by Mexican troops. However, the state government reported heavy fighting in and around the nearby city of Ocosingo.

Rebel leaders here said their forces were attacking Comitan, near the border with Guatemala, while earlier news reports had the rebels in control of Altamirano and Las Margaritas. "We will control the entire country, including the capital," said a rebel commander who refused to identify herself.

In a predawn attack Saturday, rebels took San Cristobal de las Casas, the state's second-largest city, but they evacuated it early today. They returned this evening to engage an army battalion on the city's outskirts, and gunfire was audible from the city center.

Mexico, which was toasting implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Saturday when the first fighting began, has not experienced an armed uprising since the 1970s.

The free-trade agreement, along with widely reported abuses of Indian peasants by powerful, wealthy landowners here, appeared to be at the crux of the revolt. A leader of the Zapatista group, named for Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, said the uprising was timed to coincide with NAFTA's commencement and that it was launched to protest the widespread, growing economic inequalities in this developing nation.

The rebel leader, identified only as Comandante Marcos, was quoted today in the newspaper La Jornada as saying the free-trade agreement represented an injustice to the Indians of Mexico, "which are ignored by the government of {President} Carlos Salinas de Gortari." He denounced the Salinas government as "illegitimate."

A communique issued by the insurgents cited other criticisms of the Salinas government and said: "For {the government} it doesn't matter that we possess nothing, absolutely nothing, not a home, not land, not work, not education."

Government and Roman Catholic officials in Chiapas said the region's indigenous people have become increasingly angry in recent years because economic changes wrought by Salinas's government have not reached them.

"The real background is complete marginalization and poverty and the frustration of efforts of many years trying to improve the situation," the Rev. Gonzalo Ituralde of San Cristobal told the Reuter news agency.

Chiapas, largely covered by mountains and jungle, is home to many indigenous groups that live in landless poverty. According to government statistics, about 30 percent of Chiapas's 3.2 million residents cannot read or write.

Chiapas shares a porous border with the war-torn northern region of Guatemala, where Central America's last guerrilla war continues. Tens of thousands of Guatemalan refugees have fled into Chiapas and other Mexican border states since the Guatemalan army launched a scorched-earth military campaign to root them out in the mid-1980s.

A diplomat in Mexico City said Guatemalan guerrillas are known to cross the border and have established encampments here during times of heavy fighting in Guatemala. Last year, a cache of Guatemalan rebel weapons and ammunition was discovered in central Mexico.

Guerrillas here and elsewhere in rebel-controlled territory insisted they were Mexican, but their light-green uniforms and aging weaponry were of types not often seen in Mexico. Private ownership of guns is outlawed in Mexico.

Army commanders control the air with U.S.-made helicopter gunships and have a clear advantage in ground firepower, but they hesitated today to use more than light weaponry, rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifles mounted atop Humvee, all-terrain vehicles to root out the insurgents.

A presidential spokesman indicated force would not be used to quell the insurrection, telling news services that the government was watching the situation "but we have avoided the trap that they set for us, getting us to react violently." In several areas of Chiapas, however, soldiers were seen battling rebels.

In San Cristobal this morning, hundreds of tourists panicked along with local residents when men in a convoy of unmarked cars paraded through the streets shouting, "Long live the revolution!"

"Everyone is nervous, because we don't know when they will be coming back," said resident Margarita Jarra. "We have no security here. There are lots of rumors, and everyone is scared."

On Saturday, guerrillas occupied San Cristobal's two-story City Hall, ransacked its files and office equipment, then set fire to the first floor.

Roughly 15 miles east of San Cristobal on the highway to Ocosingo, more than 100 army soldiers were pinned down by rebel gunfire during an hour-long skirmish at noon today. When soldiers withdrew from the area, reporters found a civilian bus that apparently had been commandeered by the rebels and had been hit by a grenade and automatic-weapons fire.

Behind the bus, the bodies of 14 men and boys, all wearing the red bandanas of the Zapatista force, lay dead. Several had their faces blown off, while others appeared to have been shot while retreating.

On the road to Oxchuc and Ocosingo, school buses, trucks and other vehicles were encountered filled with uniformed rebels carrying shotguns and some automatic rifles. Nearly 200 rebels could be seen along a 50-mile stretch of highway.

At a roadside checkpoint, a female guerrilla whose face was covered by a ski mask demanded that two American reporters each pay a "war tax" of 50 pesos, about $16.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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