Pitched battle in Mexican town takes death toll to 86

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The Independent Online
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico, (Reuter) - Heavy fighting continued yesterday between the Mexican military and armed peasants who took over six southern towns on New Year's Day.

The rebels fought a pitched battle in the town of Ocosingo, 35 miles east of this city in the poor southern state of Chiapas. The military said two soldiers and 27 peasants had died. Together with the weekend's deaths, the official toll stood at 86. One state official said as many as 150 soldiers might have died.

The Defence Ministry said the well-armed peasants, who say they are fighting for indigenous rights, attacked a military base in the mountains near here on Sunday. In the colonial city of San Cristobal, military helicopters could be seen shooting at peasants in the surrounding mountains.

The rebels, who call themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation after the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, may number up to 2,000. A rebel leader said they had been training for many years in the vast Lancondon jungle of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in his first public comments since the uprising began, said the violent acts in Chiapas 'delay the real solution to social needs' but admitted: 'We know needs and inequalities persist. We know that benefits and opportunities still are not tangible realities for many.'

Police in San Cristobal were trying to round up 179 inmates the guerrillas freed from the town's jail, many of them Indians jailed in land disputes. The rebels say they are protesting at abuses by the authorities against Indians, who in turn say they are losing their land to swindlers and their traditional way of life is being destroyed.

The rebellion coincides with the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, which took effect on 1 January. The rebels say foreign domination would make poor Mexicans poorer.

Priest holds the key, page 10

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