Villagers say priest led masked Zapatistas: Phil Davison reports from El Bosque on a rebel attack in which five prisoners were freed from the local jail

THEY CALL it the Municipal Palace. We would call it the Town Hall. In this village in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, it is a stone structure with flaking white paint, and was not looking its best. The building's windows had been smashed, debris was scattered inside and out and two dozen local Indians stood indignantly on its front steps.

The dark-skinned man at their head, Manuel Ruiz Lopez, was the municipal secretary for communal goods. The story he related, of the storming of the Municipal Palace on Friday by masked 'Zapatista guerrillas' he claimed were led by a rebel-rousing priest, was a microcosm of the inter-Indian land disputes, intertwined with tribal and religious differences, that are now shaking southern Mexico and threatening to spread across the country. It raised questions over the role of radical Catholic priests in the recent insurgency and showed peasants in so-far unaffected areas are organised and prepared, even if not yet committed to take up arms.

Worried that the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which rose up in arms across Chiapas on New Year's Day, was headed their way, village officials decided on a pre-emptive strike. There are no police here so the local elders, supporters of the nationally- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), made the arrests themselves.

Swooping before dawn on Friday, they hauled from their homes four Catholic lay preachers and a fifth man and threw them into the tiny, freezing stone-floored Municipal Palace basement that serves as a jail. The charges? Such niceties are not necessary in these parts but Mr Ruiz said they were suspected organisers of the Zapatista guerrillas.

Within 90 minutes of the arrests, between 150 and 300 men carrying machetes, sticks, hunting rifles and walkie-talkies, emerged from the surrounding jungle and freed the prisoners, smashing windows but apparently not taking anything.

According to Mr Ruiz, the men formed part of the Zapatista army and had come from the village of Chavajeval, 4 miles away. 'They hid behind scarves or balaclavas. We were defenceless. We didn't want to die. They were led by Domingo Gomez, the assistant priest. People recognised him. The catequistas (lay preachers) are behind this uprising.'

He said Zapatista guerrillas were close to the road that runs from here to the small town of Simojovel and there was concern that they planned to take over the area. The Mexican army was conspicuous by its absence in the region, their nearest checkpoint about 60 miles away.

A local shopkeeper said last week's insurgency had made him realise with hindsight that strangers had been making unusual purchases in recent weeks. 'First, they asked for batteries, always in bulk, then torches, then salt,' he said.

Fifty yards away was the cream- painted village church, an ugly modern structure, its unfinished new wings suggesting it was thriving and expecting increasing business.

The church of San Juan del Bosque was locked up but the flicker of candles from a nearby stone house led us to the village priest. He was behind a plastic screen in a backroom off his makeshift shrine and emerged nervously at the sound of the crowd. 'Bonjour, messieurs,' said Father Herve Camier, a frail, bearded 63-year-old from Calais who quietly told the crowd, in their native Tzotzil Indian language, to get back as he stepped out to talk to us.

He had not seen what happened, only that 'perhaps up to 150' men had passed early in the morning in the direction of the Municipal Palace. He had learnt only later in the day that four lay preachers had been detained, then liberated by force. Domingo Gomez was his assistant, a lay preacher, but he had not seen him since New Year's Day. 'I doubt whether he would risk doing something like that. But I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted to see his people imprisoned.'

We spoke French, outside the church, and the villagers who were present became angry that they could not understand. Father Herve said he was incommunicado since the village elders had taken his CB radio and antenna and the owner of the local caseta (telephone office) had fled as the armed men appeared on Friday. Was he afraid? 'I have fear only of their fear. And of their alcohol. When they drink, they are less conscious of what they do.'

Driving 15 miles to Simojovel there was no sign of either Mexican army or guerrillas. Father Joel Padron, a 54-year-old known for his fiery pro-Indian speeches, predicted 'a new revolution' in Mexico if the government did not hold dialogue with true Indian representatives. That, he implied, included the insurgents.

Father Padron was jailed for 50 days in 1991 on a host of charges from 'being a gang leader to stealing 10 chickens'. A mass pilgrimage by his parishioners, on foot over the 75 miles to a maximum-security jail in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, where he was held in solitary confinement, pressured the authorities to drop the charges and release him.

Simojovel, he said, was peaceful 'but there could be people who have prepared themselves to join the armed movement'. Another priest encountered along the way, Father Jose Isabel Gonzalez in the village of Bochil, expressed a similar sentiment to that of a local Indian saying: 'La gente esta al tocar.' (The people are ripe for the picking).

MEXICO CITY (Reuter) - President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, facing prospects that revolt in southern Mexico was spreading to the capital, has named a commission to promote 'dialogue' with the rebels. The move, announced on Saturday, followed the explosion of a powerful car bomb in Mexico City. Two more bombs exploded in the capital on Saturday night. And assailants tossed a grenade at a federal government building in the Pacific resort of Acapulco at the weekend.

(Photograph omitted)

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