Peasant army takes to hills as Mexican troops advance

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The Independent Online
ARMED peasants who took over six cities in New Year's Day raids fled for the hills yesterday and appeared to be pulling out of their remaining strongholds in the poor southern state of Chiapas.

It was not clear whether they intended to continue the uprising or were trying to escape further fighting with the Mexican army. Residents of the once-occupied areas said they did not know why the peasants had left, or what they were planning next.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army faded into the Lacandona jungle after abandoning several towns in Chiapas, including this tourist spot, but emerged elsewhere, suggesting they were by no means beaten by the heavy army reinforcements brought into the state.

Fighting was reported yesterday in Ocosingo, where the rebels have left the town hall in flames. They have declared war on the government and want greater rights for the poor Indians who make up the vast majority of the state's population.

Communications were difficult but the guerrillas, some armed with AK-47 rifles, others with hunting

rifles and machetes, were believed

to be still in control of Altamirano, 85 miles away. They have sacked the town hall, destroying files and furniture. Witnesses said residents had given the rebels food and water.

There appeared little doubt that the rebels, mainly peasants from three Indian tribes, descendants of the Mayas, but possibly including advisers from left-wing Guatemalan guerrillas, had the support of most of the Indians living in the area.

The white and half-caste population, notably in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, felt differently. Although Tuxtla appeared normal yesterday, a war mentality was building up, with rumours that the Zapatistas would try to take the town.

With a heavy army presence, that appeared impossible, but pro-guerrilla slogans appeared on walls in Tuxtla yesterday morning for the first time.

Combat-ready troops cut off the main square of San Cristobal, and hundreds of soldiers lurked in doorways, as well as around the cathedral. The town was sunny and relatively relaxed, but Army helicopters regularly swept low over the centre.

The guerrillas took over the town, where hundreds of tourists were among those celebrating the new year, early on Saturday. They disappeared into the surrounding forests 24 hours later, rather than risk a fight with the approaching army.

It is likely that casualties on both sides will prove higher than so far known. Witnesses saw 30 bodies of soldiers loaded on to four helicopters on the edge of San Cristobal yesterday afternoon. They were thought to have been among casualties at the Rancho Nuevo military garrison, a few miles outside the town. Some reports have said more than 100 people have been killed there.

Mystery rebels, page 10

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