The Mexican army sent reinforcements from Tuxtla and elsewhere in an attempt to cut off waves of guerrillas, mostly Indian peasants, who were reported to be edging towards positions as close as 25 miles to the state capital. Reports of the guerrilla and army movements, from witnesses in areas north-east of Tuxtla, came as Mexicans began considering the possibility that the Chiapas rebellion could spread to other states and pose a serious threat to the party that has ruled Mexico for more than 60 years in a presidential election year.
Up to 2,000 guerrillas were said to be moving from the town of Las Margaritas, which they abandoned earlier in the week, to Altamirano, which the army controls but which the Zapatistas are said to have surrounded.
The reports suggested the new year rebellion may be far from over, despite the fact that the guerrillas, resurrecting the land reform and human rights ideals of Emiliano Zapata, Mexico's revolutionary hero, had vacated towns they occupied on New Year's Day. The guerrillas had pledged to march on Tuxtla in their first communique, which said their eventual aim was to emulate Zapata by marching on Mexico City, 450 miles to the north.
For the first time yesterday, a group calling itself the Urban Front of the EZLN, issued a communique suggesting it would hit targets in the Mexican capital. Calling on trade unionists and students to join their fight, it said 'let us attack in a thousand ways'.
Addressed to the 20 million residents of Mexico City, it said: 'We are fighting against the violence of poverty, against the violence of hunger and of electoral farce. Mexicans, blood brothers, are we condemned to be miserable for ever?' The Urban Front said it would not harm civilians but would strike at 'the brain centres of the oligarchy'.
The communique took the Chiapas battles beyond this southern state and seemed likely to find echoes among the Indians in the sprawling national capital.
It called on Mexican army conscripts, a large majority of them Indians, not to fire on their countrymen. 'We warn you, Mexican soldier, young like we are, that this struggle will be going on for years. Your generals do not care about you. They are using you. Don't kill innocent people.'
The government continued to play down the insurgency. 'This is not a war. It's a juridical problem,' said Eloy Cantu, a government spokesman. 'So what was the bombardment of civilians we witnessed yesterday - a Nintendo game?' shouted a Mexican reporter.
Mr Cantu spoke of 61 guerrillas - as always, he referred to them as 'lawbreakers' - killed in the first five days of the year and 34 detained in Chiapas. That appeared to be a relatively low figure among a group now thought to number several thousand. The spokesman gave no figure for military casualties but they could be high. He admitted a key military garrison at Rancho Nuevo, six miles from here, was still coming under intermittent fire from rebels in the surrounding hills.
With knowledge of the terrain, the guerrillas, mostly Indians from the area and the Lacandona jungle to the east, are able to emerge and disappear at will. The government spokesman confirmed that the Zapatistas near San Cristobal had shot at an army helicopter on Wednesday, forcing it to make an emergency landing. He cited this as the reason army planes had bombarded hamlets near the spot later the same day.
The fact that reporters had come under rocket and cannon attack from the planes, he said, was 'a very lamentable incident' that would be investigated. Reporters who had come under attack along with local women and children could not return to the scene yesterday to check on their fate as the army had sealed off all approach roads.
The bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, said many people had disappeared during the bombardment. It was 'very probable' some had been hit by the rocket and cannon fire, while others may have fled higher into the mountains to hide, he said.
The bishop said the Chiapas rebellion may not turn out to be an isolated incident. 'I don't think it's exceptional. Conditions reached a limit here, but it could happen in other places.'
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