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Mexico Takes Control of Rebel Strongholds : Chiapas: Guerrillas are seen heading deeper into mountains. Authorities confirm army colonel was slain.

February 12, 1995|JUANITA DARLING and MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NUEVA POZA RICA, Mexico — The Mexican army on Saturday fortified its positions in 11 towns that were strongholds of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, and authorities confirmed the first army casualty, a colonel apparently gunned down in an ambush.

Thirty helicopters, three combat airplanes, 30 light tanks and 32 armored cars were deployed to the rebel territory in the southern state of Chiapas, a spokesman for Mexico's National Defense Secretariat said.

Pilots who flew over said they saw troops advancing northward from a staging area at the former neutral zone of Guadalupe Tepeyac.

They also saw what appeared to be rebels heading further inward, toward rugged mountains and unsettled rain forest.

The whereabouts of Subcommander Marcos, branded a wanted man along with four other suspected rebel leaders last week, were still unknown Saturday. Reporters said they last saw him early Thursday in Guadalupe Tepeyac.

Mexico City's daily newspaper La Jornada, which has published dozens of interviews with the guerrilla leader and verbatim transcripts of his communiques during the past year, printed a letter Marcos wrote dated Feb. 2 to Interior Secretary Esteban Moctezuma Barragan.

Responding to rumors that President Ernesto Zedillo was planning to crack down on the Zapatistas, Marcos stated: "If that's so, well, you can proceed as you want. We will fight to the last man.

"What is coming, if nobody stops it, is guerrilla war," the subcommander added in the Jornada account, asserting that the rebels would win such a war.

Zedillo issued arrest warrants for the five Zapatista leaders last week, citing the discovery of arms caches and plans for rebel violence. He also revealed the identity of the mysterious leader Marcos.

The move was a turnaround in government policy, which had previously focused on a negotiated solution. And it was a high-stakes gamble for Zedillo, as some analysts predicted the president could lose political support and even spark a bloody guerrilla war.

Two of the five suspected leaders have been arrested, but have denied any connection to the uprising.

Military authorities in Chiapas confirmed that Col. Hugo Alfredo Manterola was killed, apparently by a sniper, on the road between the former rebel strongholds of Las Margaritas and Nuevo Momon. There were unconfirmed reports that another soldier died, and the government news agency Notimex said 10 were injured.

But officials said the ambush appeared to be an isolated incident, rather than the opening salvo of a new guerrilla war.

Reporters attempting to enter the rebel zone by airplane were turned back by army helicopters, continuing the government policy of strict control over information about the military action.

In a reversal of public sympathy when the Zapatistas took over several towns 13 months ago, demanding better living conditions and rights for Indians, opinion polls published in Mexico City on Saturday indicated broad popular support for the crackdown.

However, several thousand people--many chanting "We are all Marcos"--marched to Mexico City's main plaza to denounce the crackdown and express support for the Zapatistas.

And Mexicans in small villages at the edge of what has been rebel territory said they do not believe the government's actions will deter the rebels.

"This will go on," said Lauro Velasco, 33, the head of a 30-family, quasi-communal farm in Nueva Poza Rica, within sight of the Guatemalan border. "They say that if the army comes after (the rebels), they will be ready. They are willing to die."

Rebel attacks last year compelled many villagers to flee. But many here have decided to stay.

"When we fled last year, it was pure suffering," said Velasco, who spent two months in refugee camps before returning home. "If the comrades here do not kick us out, this time we will stay."

Zedillo pledged that civilians will have nothing to fear from the army and vowed to continue the operation strictly according to the law. He insisted that the new policy is neither authoritarian nor harsh, but a constitutional necessity to neutralize a threat to national security.

"Each and every one of the actions of the attorney general and the Mexican army has been conducted with the strict application of the law and with care to protect the humane civilian population and the indigenous communities in Chiapas," he declared in a communique issued from his official residence.

However, two men arrested as guerrilla leaders--Jorge Santiago Santiago and Jorge Javier Elorreaga--disputed the fairness of the government operation.

Santiago, the director of a statewide humanitarian agency for indigenous Mexicans, denied any connection to the rebels, and Elorreaga said he met Subcommander Marcos when he was producing a television documentary.

Elorreaga's wife, Maria Gloria Benavides, who was arrested last week, also blasted the government's actions.

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