Mexico rebels invoke the name of Zapata

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THEY appeared almost magically from the shadows, spreading across the zocalo (main square) of San Cristobal de las Casas while the locals and European tourists were bringing in the new year to salsa music and fireworks.

There were around 600 of them, maybe 100 of them women, some looking menacing in balaclavas and carrying Uzi sub-machine-guns, others almost pathetic with their rusty revolvers, hunting rifles and machetes. They had, they said, come in the name of the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and called themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

In San Cristobal, residents said, they barely had to fire a shot. A policeman who tried to defend the Prosecutor's Office was the only casualty, hit by five bullets and badly wounded. The building, considered responsible for jailing Indians on the whims of caciques (landowners), was burnt down. Casualties were higher in four other towns, where at least six policemen died and town halls were torched.

When the 600 slipped out of San Cristobal under cover of darkness yesterday, they left behind leaflets saying they were headed for the army garrison at Rancho Nuevo, a few miles away. That looked like revolutionary rhetoric until the Mexican army reported last night the garrison had been attacked and that 14 of the peasant rebels had been killed.

Last May, after 40 armed men and women ambushed an army patrol near the Guatemalan border, a government spokesman had said: 'There are no guerrillas in Chiapas.'

Yesterday, as tourists took snapshots and videos of the peasant guerrillas - from the Tzontil, Tojolabal and Tzental tribes, all descendants of the Mayas - the rebels said they had declared war on what they called the illegal Mexican government and demanded the resignation of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The occupation of San Cristobal took on a fiesta atmosphere as the guerrillas, in rough 'uniforms' of coffee-coloured shirts, green trousers, red scarves and red-and-black insignia, chatted with locals and tourists and handed out leaflets. The rebel leaders wore balaclavas but most of the guerrillas left their faces uncovered and were recognised by residents as local villagers.

The guerrillas threatened to march on Mexico City, 450 miles (720km) to the north, gathering peasant support along the way to emulate Zapata's triumphant entry into the capital in 1914. But the threat was seen only as revolutionary rhetoric aimed at challenging Mr Salinas.

A communique they left in San Cristobal had a similar tone. 'Attention, Mexicans. We have gone on to Rancho Nuevo. Then we will go to Tuxtla Gutierrez (Chiapas state capital). There will be no respite. . . . We don't want Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement). We want liberty and a legitimate government of the people.'

Left-wing opposition parties never recognised Mr Salinas's victory in the 1988 presidential elections, when he beat the populist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. It was the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) narrowest win, after a mysterious computer failure at the PRI-led electoral commission.

The Chiapas rebellion, the worst in Mexico in 20 years, was also a big blow in the new year to Mr Salinas's hand- picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, who, under normal circumstances, would be a shoo-in in this summer's six-yearly elections.

For one thing, rising disillusionment with one-party rule threatens to make Mr Colosio the PRI's first losing presidential candidate. And, as Social Development Minister, Mr Colosio was sent by Mr Salinas to Chiapas last August after signs of unrest. He pledged pounds 8m in development projects. But this weekend's rebellion showed Chiapas's peasants are tired of promises.