Marcos taunts Zedillo from his hide-out

Phil Davison in San Cristobal de las Casas says the guerrilla leader is mounting a poetic propaganda war
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As Zapatista guerrillas regrouped in the jungles of the southern state of Chiapas and their leader, "Subcomandante Marcos", taunted the government, the Mexican army joined battle yesterday with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

A general accused a Red Cross delegate, Katherine Herrmann of "instigating [Indian peasants] to rebellion" while the ICRC complained of being kept out of the conflict zone and expressed concern over the fate of thousands, possibly tens of thousands of refugees.

The chief ICRC delegate in Mexico, Claudio Baranzini, said that the accusations against Miss Herrmann were the result of a "misunderstanding".

He said that he feared for the lives of women, children and old men who fled into the jungle as the army moved into former guerrilla-held areas at the weekend.

Mr Baranzini was turned back at an army checkpoint at the town of Altamirano on Sunday as he attempted to check the situation of the refugees and reports that the army was carrying out "genocide", bombarding the jungle and "beating and raping" civilians.

He has suspended the Red Cross operation in the town of Guadalupe Tepeyac - a guerrilla stronghold until the army moved in last Friday - "because the army took over the local clinic and we can not therefore work in a climate of neutrality."

General Ramon Arrieta, commander of the paratroopers who took Guadalupe Tepeyac, told reporters flown to the area in an army-arranged trip that "this woman [Miss Herrmann] acted as though this whole place was her responsibility and the population should obey her. She was inciting them to rebellion so that they'd be afraid of us."

Mr Baranzini explained that Miss Herrmann had merely been trying to guarantee the safety of more than 200 old men, women and children who had gathered in the local clinic for Red Cross protection. He said she was now in San Cristobal de las Casas, that the Red Cross operation in Guadalupe Tepeyac had been suspended and that he had no idea as to the fate of the civilians.

General Arrieta said he had detained two Americans in the town posing as journalists. He named them as Robert Trenen and Ruben Cardoso. Asked whether detaining them might not complicate relations with the US, the general replied: "I take full responsibility. I believe they were inciting the population to disobedience and rebellion." The two Americans were later released and arrived in San Cristobal, saying they were in fact freelance journalists and dismissing the general's allegations.

Following President Ernesto Zedillo's decision last week to move against the guerrillas, the army appears to have taken over most of the towns and villages held by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) for the past year. But the guerrillas, estimated at several thousand and possibly accompanied by thousands of civilian sympathisers, are believed to have moved north-east across the rivers Colorado and Jatate into the Blue Mountains, accessible only by horse or on foot.

Subcomandante Marcos yesterday produced his first statement since Mr Zedillo ordered the move against him. As always, it was highly literate, sometimes poetic and often ironic. "We are the Zapatistas, the little people, the always-forgotten ones, the millionaires in unfulfilled promises," he wrote.

He mocked Mr Zedillo's revelation of his alleged real name last week - 37-year-old former philosophy lecturer Rafael Sebastian Guillen - and photographs purportedly showing him for the first time without his trademark black balaclava. "I hear they've found another Marcos. Is he handsome?" asked the man voted last year the sexiest man in Mexico in a poll of women. "They're trying to make me look ugly. It's ruining my female correspondence."

Ending on a more serious note, he wrote: "I've got 300 bullets. Tell them they can send 299 soldiers to try to get me. Why only 299 when I've got 300 bullets? Well, the last one's for yours truly.

tGuadalajara (AP) - Jubilant opposition gubernatorial candidate Alberto Cardenas said he "won by a knockout" in dealing Mexico's ruling party its biggest election defeat in its 66-year history.

By their count, Mr Cardenas and his centre-right National Action Party took the Jalisco state house, about 90 of the state's 124 municipal governments and the majority in the state legislature.