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Rebels try to advance via Internet

Waging war from jungle hideouts with rusty rifles, the Zapatista National Liberation Army has invaded cyberspace to launch a propaganda offensive against the Mexican government and the World Bank.

The information-age rebels, led by the ski-masked Subcommandante Marcos (whose real name is Rafael Sebastian Guillen) are being assisted by human rights activists and supporters in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas who use the Internet to spread the Zapatista message around the world.

Computer links and satellite television have enabled the Chiapas rebels to marshall international opinion and to spotlight human rights abuses by the Mexican army.

Marcos, the Mexican rebel leader, carries a laptop computer in a backpack and plugs the machine into the cigarette lighter socket of a pick-up truck before tapping out his now famous communiqus. Copied on to floppy disks the statements are taken by courier to supporters who transmit them by telephone to computer bulletin boards.

"What governments should really fear," the rebel spokesman said recently, "is a communications expert."

As a leader of an army of poorly equipped campesinos hiding in jungle redoubts, Marcos has recognised that information transmitted through cyberspace is more powerful than the rebels' Second World War-era guns.

When the Mexican police raided Zapatista safehouses in the southern state of Veracruz recently, it was reported that they captured more computer disks than bullets. And when Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo launched a military offensive aimed at capturing Marcos, an "urgent action" alert went out to sympathisers worldwide. It included the direct fax number to the president and the interior minister. As a result of the campaign the president's fax machine either burnt out or was switched off according to Mariclaire Acosta, head of a Mexican human rights group.

During their retreat the Zapatistas handed an international public relations beating to the government by sending a communiqu on to the net claiming that the army was "killing children, beating and raping women...and bombing us".

Harry Cleaver, of the University of Texas at Austin, is a key link in the rebels' information chain. Last year he used hundreds of people linked via the Internet to organise the translation of the book Zapatistas! Documents of the New Mexican Revolution in only three weeks.