Seven die in Mexico peasant rising

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Chicomuselo - About 300 peasants stormed the town hall of this remote village in the state of Chiapas, setting off violence that left seven people dead, including a police chief and his deputy. The peasants held the town hall for 13 hours on Tues day before being driven out by police firing tear gas and bullets.

The confrontation was the most violent of several demonstrations staged by mainly Indian protesters to demand that Mexico's government recognise Amado Avendano, a failed opposition candidate for the governorship of Chiapas. Mr Avendano claims he was cheated of victory in elections on 21 August through voting fraud.

The incidents also marked a resurgence of tension in Chiapas, where a year-old rebellion by the Zapatista National Liberation Army still smoulders despite recent peace overtures. About 15 miles east, 300 protesters took over the town hall of Frontera Comalapa. Police used tear gas to try to dislodge them but they remained in the building overnight.

Other protesters, armed with machetes and sticks, barricaded the highway 20 miles southeast of San Cristobal de las Casas on a major route to the southern Chiapas city of Comitan.

An opposition activist, Cesar Espinosa, said police provoked the violence in Chicomuselo. "The town hall take-over was to have been peaceful. But the police had already been alerted and fired on the demonstrators," Mr Espinosa said.

Two protest leaders, from a peasant organisation backing Mr Avendano, were shot dead by police when they and 300 followers stormed the building.

The local police chief, Hernan Sepulveda Fernandez, was hanged by his feet before being shot three times in the back, according to a police spokesman, Pedro Cordoba Escobar. His deputy, Moises Ramirez Ramos, was hacked to death by protesters with machetes after both were taken hostage before dawn. Another man was killed when angry townspeople armed themselves in an attempt to defend the hall.

They hacked with machetes and then shot dead a man believed to be one of the protesters, and a seventh person also died from injuries in one of the attacks, according to a government statement.

Police gunfire forced the protesters to take refuge in the nearby church and then flee the town. Government helicopters flew overhead and about 150 armed police later had the area surrounded.

Mr Espinosa said the peasants were worried armed cattle ranchers might intervene. Land disputes have been at the core of the Chiapas uprising, and ranchers have armed themselves with automatic rifles to oppose a series of land take-overs by peasants emboldened by the guerrilla uprising. Occasional deaths have been reported in a series of confrontations between the landowners and the peasants, who have seized thousands of acres.

The unrest broke out just two days before a Zapatista ceasefire is set to expire. On Friday, they announced that a six-day truce declared on 31 December would remain in force until today to give the peace efforts more time.

Currency crisis, page 32