Salinas talks tough as Zapatistas strike back: Army poised for offensive as rebels threaten attack on Mexico City after destroying power lines in two more states

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The Independent Online
DESPITE a tough television address by the President of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which may herald a military offensive against guerrillas in the southern state of Chiapas, the rebels responded with hit-and-run sabotage attacks in two other states.

No sooner had the President blamed 'professionals of violence' and 'a foreign group' for tricking Indian peasants into an uprising than news came that two pylons had been blown up in Puebla and Michoacan. The so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) said it had destroyed the pylons 'as part of our announced advance on Mexico City'.

The power lines were cut in Uruapan and Tehuacan, towns with large indigenous populations and serious poverty. 'Mexicans, carry out revolution, destroy a pylon,' said the EZLN statement faxed to Mexican newspapers. The attacks may have bveen carried out by other anti-government groups rather than the Zapatistas but they were a further psychological blow to Mr Salinas. In other incidents riot police cleared the stock exchange after a Zapatista bomb scare and airports declared maximum security alerts.

Despite press, radio and television coverage heavily weighted in favour of the government, the Chiapas insurgency was said to be finding a sympathetic response among poor Mexicans, Indians and mestizos, in the capital and elsewhere, perhaps because of the symbolism associated with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant revolutionary hero.

Mr Salinas told the nation: 'This is not an Indian uprising but the action of a violent armed group. It is an action against the national interest. This group is against Mexico.

'We are advancing firmly, although the situation continues to be delicate since the aggressors have continued to attack our soldiers. But they are going to fail.' For the first time he appeared to give some ground to the rebels by referring to a 'pardon'. The Zapatistas and Roman Catholic intermediaries have called for an amnesty. But Mr Salinas's reference was highly conditional. 'For those poverty-stricken (peasants) who participated after being tricked, or pressured, or out of desperation, we will seek fair treatment and consider a pardon,' he said. That was a long way from the sort of amnesty guarantee the rebel leaders are demanding.

The Mexican army, after mobilising thousands more soldiers, appeared poised for an offensive in some areas. Troops backed by light tanks moved in force to areas north-west of here, where guerrilla units were said to have moved closer to the Chiapas state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez. A guerrilla attack on the heavily guarded town appeared impossible but the authorities were concerned about sabotage.

Security was stepped up in and around installations of the state petroleum company, Petroleos Mexicanos. In San Cristobal troops sealed off further areas of the town centre and prepared for action.

The Zapatistas were said to be still in control of one small town, Chanal, where they were refusing to allow civilians to leave. Most guerrillas have retreated into the hills and jungle east of here. A young man who said he had escaped from Chanal told reporters a policeman shot by the rebels on 1 January was still lying in a street on Thursday.

Reporters who reached what appeared to be a guerrilla base at Guadalupe Tepeyac earlier in the week, before the army cut most roads, said they saw 1,200 guerrillas, holding more than 90 hostages including the former governor of Chiapas, Absalon Castellanos. Guadalupe Tepeyac is deep in the jungle 15 miles from Guatemala in an area where the army rarely ventures.

(Photograph omitted)