Mexicans move on rebel region

San Cristobal de las Casas -Hundreds of police and troops late yesterday occupied a town at the heart of a resurgent Indian rebellion in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas.

The move came after a daylong army show of force, taken to counter Monday's surprise announcement that Indian rebels had slipped through an army cordon and taken up positions in 38 Chiapas towns. Soldiers and state police began occupying Simojovel on Tuesday, said Joel Padron, the community's parish priest. "We are very worried, because the weapons of both groups are very close to each other and to the people of this community.This is a truly dangerous situation. We must seek a dialogue."

The town's mayor, Francisco Cesar Hernandez Perez, had asked for army protection after rebels had ransacked the town hall and burned government archives.

The rebels have retreated from the town and are believed to be hiding in the mountains nearby.

The threat of new violence was the first crisis for the 20-day-old government of President Ernesto Zedillo.

There were no reports of fighting as the lightly armoured 18-vehicle column travelled the main highway to Simojovel, 22 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas. Police ripped down several wooden signs reading "This Property has Been Seized by the ZapatistaNational Liberation Army".

The National Defence Secretariat said that its troops in Chiapas would abide by a truce agreed in January.

Subcommandante Marcos, the rebel leader, claimed on Monday that thousands of rebels slipped through a military cordon ringing their territory and took up positions in 38 Chiapas towns. He described it as the first rebel "military campaign" since 12 days of fighting that preceded the 12 January ceasefire.

The rebels want Amado Avendano, the opposition candidate in the August election for governor of Chiapas , installed. They say he was cheated of victory because of fraud by Mr Zedillo's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

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