Rumours surround Mexico guerrillas: The military strength and plans of the self-styled heirs of Zapata can still only be guessed at

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TUXTLA GUTIERREZ - Speculation grew yesterday about who might be behind the Indian peasant uprising in the Mexican jungle state of Chiapas that has so far claimed more than 80 lives and stunned the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

While some spoke of a long- planned revolt by some of the most downtrodden of the state's fragmented Maya peoples, others said they saw the influence of foreign revolutionaries looking to export conflict or destabilise the Mexican state.

Estimates of the strength of the self-styled Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which fought bloody clashes with the Mexican army for the fourth day in a row yesterday, ranged from a few hundred to several thousand. And estimates of the scope of their future actions ranged from a gradual fizzling out in the face of superior army firepower to a drawn-out campaign of guerrilla insurgency against government forces.

Arnaldo Braguti, a Mexico-based Italian sociologist who on New Year's Day saw the rebels take over San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest city in Chiapas, said he was unimpressed with their military bearing. 'They had mostly weapons from the Mexican Revolution, and lots of machetes,' he said.

'A lot looked as though they didn't know where they were, as though they had been dragged down from the mountain.' While the rebel footsoldiers were probably mostly indigenous people, he said, the main leader was definitely not.

'He was white, he wasn't at all indigenous,' Mr Braguti said. 'He spoke perfect Spanish but also spoke English to some of the tourists in the town.'

Some political leaders in the forest-laden, mountainous state said they had no idea where the rebels had come from or who they were.

'I don't know who they are,' said Milton Morales Dominguez, a member of the state congress for Mr Salinas's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But Jack Demostenes Munoz, the president of the left-leaning opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in Chiapas, said it was false to present the EZLN - named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution - as having simply appeared from nowhere. 'They come from the jungle, they had been preparing for 10 years,' Mr Munoz said. 'Most of them are Tzeltzales, part of the great Maya family'.

The Maya civilisation - which at its height in AD300-AD900 held sway across Central America, Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and Chiapas and Campeche states - is now splintered into scores of groups whose languages are often mutually incomprehensible.

Mr Munoz said he believed white, non-indigenous Mexicans from the north of the country have been working for years to promote revolution among the indigenous peoples of the Chiapas jungles, which greatly resemble the terrain of neighbouring Guatemala to the south.

A Guatemalan army spokeswoman, Major Edith Vargas, said on Monday that left-wing guerrillas from her country may be involved in the Chiapas uprising. 'I do not reject the possibility that Guatemalan insurgents may be involved in this armed confrontation in Mexico,' she said, echoing widely repeated claims in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital of Chiapas.

Left-wing rebels of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) have a strong presence in the Guatemalan departments of Huhuetenango and Quiche, which border Chiapas. However, the official Mexican news agency Notimex said the URNG issued a statement late on Monday strongly denying any ties to the Zapatistas.

While government reports have spoken of several hundred guerrillas carrying out the attacks, Mr Munoz said the figure was likely to be higher. 'I calculate there has been a deployment of some 2,000 guerrillas,' he said, adding: 'They have been building up financial resources and weapons. I do not think they have brought all their forces out in this single blow.'