The peasants, their leaders wearing balaclavas and carrying Uzi submachine guns but many armed only with hunting rifles or machetes, called themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army and said they had declared war on the Mexican government to seek the rights demanded by, but mostly denied to, the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata 80 years ago.
They made it clear they had timed their uprising to coincide with the entering into force at the new year of the Nafta free trade agreement between Mexico, the US and Canada, which they said would further marginalise Mexico's Indians, particularly in the south. They called for the ousting of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The guerrillas slipped almost unnoticed into the tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the southern state of Chiapas, during new year celebrations, and took four other towns in the state. After the Mexican Air Force buzzed San Cristobal and Catholic priests, known to be sympathetic to the rebels, warned of an army 'massacre' in retaliation, the 600 who had occupied the town, including about 100 women, melted out of sight before dawn yesterday.
It was not clear last night whether they continued to occupy the other four towns, where six policemen died in gun battles early on Saturday. The town hall in one town, Ocosingo, was still ablaze yesterday.
Although their weapons made them no serious threat to the military, hundreds apparently marched on to the nearby Rancho Nuevo army garrison. An army communique last night said the garrison had been attacked and 14 rebels killed. Before leaving San Cristobal, they emptied pharmacies and local national health centres of medicines, but avoided any other robbery or harm to local residents or foreign tourists.
The army was said to be sending reinforcements to quell the rebellion, the worst Mexico has seen in 20 years and, to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Salinas de Gortari, ominously reminiscent of the start of the 1910-17 revolution led by Zapata and others.
Shadowy fighters, page 9