Mexican planes turn their fire on the media: 'All hell broke loose as they came in lower, firing rockets and cannon'. Phil Davison reports from San Antonio de los Banos

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The Independent Online
LIKE most Indian women in the hillside hamlets around San Cristobal de las Casas, Irma Sanchez had no idea of her age. But she would have been in her twenties. She had six children huddled around her, a baby sucking on a breast, and was very afraid.

We quickly realised why - and she may no longer be alive.

We had passed a final army checkpoint on a road leading out of the town to discover the damage done to the hamlets during two hours of bombardment by Mexican army aircraft and helicopters the previous evening. The government said the attack came after sniper fire from Zapatista guerrillas who occupied several towns in the state of Chiapas at the weekend. Now they have melted back into the hills and jungle.

We were worried about sniper fire but saw no sign of guerrillas. Irma, a wrinkled old woman, and 15 brightly dressed Indian women, children and babies, were the first people we found. Everyone else had fled the hamlet of simple shacks and tiny plots.

Light attack planes circled ever closer as we spoke to the women. David Adams, a reporter for the Times, and I cut short the interviews. The planes had clearly spotted the three press vehicles parked in the hamlet. We had just driven on, around a bend, when we heard the first impact behind us. We decided it was safer to carry on to the hamlet of El Corralito, a few hundred yards farther on, which was virtually deserted but for three peasant men, each carrying a makeshift white flag.

Then all hell broke loose. The planes came in lower, one at a time, and fired rockets, then rapid-fire cannon, as well as dropping the occasional bomb, over the treeline to our left. The target was the hamlet we had left. 'They're hitting San Antonio de los Banos,' Jose Vasquez, 45, told us.

Going on or going back appeared equally dangerous so we watched as the planes swooped, one every minute or two, firing rockets and cannon into the gulley where we had left the women and children. We counted two dozen rockets; they emitted puffs of smoke before screaming towards their targets like big, flaming arrows. A dozen bombs and hundreds of rounds of cannon fire echoed around the rocky ridges.

We had left one carload of journalists behind. Adams and I decided to drive back to check on them and the Indian women. The planes seemed to be following our path and we heard continuing explosions ahead. Rounding the bend, the road was blocked by a red minibus used by a crew from the Univision TV network, its doors flung open. The dry bracken, corn plots and trees by the roadside were on fire.

A reporter shouted from a nearby rock or us to get down, saying the planes had been firing rockets and cannon at them for half an hour. Their van was clearly marked 'TV' in large white letters on all sides and the roof. A terrified woman interpreter lay beneath the van, 10 yards from where a rocket had exploded.

To our right, we could see the women's shack but there was no sign of them. The shack had not been hit.

Earlier, Irma had told us her family had hidden 'in the kitchen' during Tuesday's bombardment, although the house, where 15 people slept, was a single room. The Univision crew, which had filmed the bombardment from behind rocks, had no idea whether the women had survived.

It is hard to gauge the support for the guerrillas among Indians, but it appears very strong. Most feel they have little or nothing left to lose.

However, when I had asked Irma whether she had seen any guerrillas, or posed any political question, her grasp of Spanish would suddenly fail. She said their men had gone to San Cristobal to buy sugar and salt. It was possible they, and many more like them, were among those who stunned Mexico by their dramatic insurgency to cries of 'Viva Zapata' at the new year.

The guerrillas, who appear to have numbered several thousand, pulled out of their last stronghold, the town of Altamirano, on Tuesday. That night they were still said to be holding positions in Ocosingo, where nervy soldiers controlled a town centre littered with bodies. Reporters saw five dead guerrillas in the marketplace, lying in a row, face down, hands behind their backs and some showing signs that their hands had been bound with string. Each had been shot once through the head.

Zapata or Nafta, page 18