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Mexico Rebels Halt Peace Talks, Defy Government : Latin America: Salinas seeks to defuse dispute with Zapatistas amid fears of renewed fighting.


MEXICO CITY — The threat of renewed armed conflict loomed over this crisis-ridden nation Tuesday after Indian rebels in the southern state of Chiapas broke off peace talks with the government, mined roads to their jungle strongholds and said they had put up antiaircraft batteries to challenge the Mexican air force.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's government tried to defuse the conflict, renewing orders to the Mexican armed forces to fire only if fired upon by the rebels and launching a peace offensive that offered the Zapatista National Liberation Army new concessions.

But Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who has acted as an intermediary in the nine months since the Zapatistas suspended a bloody insurrection that left more than 145 dead in the impoverished southern state in January, warned both sides that the showdown has "a transcendental gravity."

Analysts voiced concern that the Zapatistas, whose populist crusade for minority rights in Chiapas and throughout the south has been pushed to the margins by two recent political assassinations, escalating drug-related violence and deepening fears for personal safety, are preparing for a last, desperate act of war.

"They are trying to bring themselves back to life," said Homero Aridjis, a writer and social critic. "There is a real danger that the fighting will resume, given the climate of violence that has overtaken the nation, the bloody surrealism that we are living."

In a 10-point communique signed by Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatistas' black-masked leader, the group asserted that Mexican government forces were preparing for combat--reinforcing positions around Zapatista-controlled towns, buzzing rebel positions with fighter planes and "ostensibly preparing for . . . an imminent attack."

Marcos accused Salinas' government of "deception" and operating "a criminal political culture" that lacks a genuine will to resolve the grievances that the Zapatistas and dozens of civilian activist groups supporting them say were behind the January uprising.

"Therefore, to respond to the provocations . . . Zapatista troops have completed mining all land access to rebel territory and already have installed antiaircraft units," the rebels said. There were no details or confirmation on how the poor, guerrilla force had acquired such heavy weapons as antiaircraft guns.

"We are ready," Marcos declared, adding, "The Zapatista National Liberation Army will not renew talks for a political solution to the conflict."

Responding to the latest in a series of crises that have marred his final year in office, Salinas denied that the Mexican army has plans for a military offensive. He called for immediate, direct talks with the Zapatista leaders.

The government also ordered the creation of an independent Truth Commission to address the Zapatistas' grievances in the months since the government declared a unilateral cease-fire after launching a series of military offensives to put down the insurrection.

"It is necessary to declare that the army has orders not to take any offensive military action and only to fire in self-defense if attacked," the government declared in its communique late Monday night. "This instruction will be complied with immediately."

Shortly after the uprising began, a similar government peace effort quickly thwarted the growing support that the Zapatistas had enjoyed throughout Mexico. "The revolutionary mood of the country quickly evaporated," Aridjis said. "They are not likely to regain support from the rest of the country."

Besides revulsion at violence stemming from the political assassinations this year after decades of stability, he said, Mexicans are growing skeptical about the rebels. "The public is accustomed to empty threats from the Zapatistas," he said.

For example, they threatened violence if they did not like the outcome of the Aug. 21 presidential election but did not return to arms then.

But Aridjis added that the months between the presidential election and the inauguration--scheduled for Dec. 1--are traditionally a period of instability. That increases concern about the possible effects of a return to fighting in the south, especially considering other recent violence here.

The renewed confrontation with the Zapatistas came as the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party were still reeling from the second assassination of a key political leader in seven months.

Just hours after the Zapatistas issued the thinly veiled declaration of war, prosecutors attempting to untangle a conspiracy behind last month's assassination of the PRI's second-ranking official arrested a legislative aide suspected of helping mastermind the plot.

Fernando Rodriguez Gonzalez--a technical secretary to a fugitive federal legislator also suspected in the plot in which Francisco Ruiz Massieu was killed--was taken into custody late Monday by federal police in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

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