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Zedillo Calls Off Search for Rebel Leader Marcos : Mexico: Zapatistas will consider talks. Villagers recount flight of frightened rebels as army advanced.


LA ESTRELLA, Mexico — Federal agents suspended their hunt for rebel leader Subcommander Marcos on Wednesday, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army said it is ready to renew talks with the Mexican government--under certain conditions.

As President Ernesto Zedillo's new peace offensive began to take shape, members of a Mexican congressional committee announced that they will leave for the embattled southern state of Chiapas today to re-establish contact with the Zapatistas.

But rebel Maj. Ana Maria outlined some conditions Wednesday.

"For us to talk, the government needs to withdraw troops from the places where they are now, stop arresting people and cancel the arrest orders" against Zapatista leaders, she said, according to the Reuters news agency.

While the army search for the leaders has been halted, the arrest warrants are still in place.

But the Mexican Congress will consider a blanket amnesty for the rebels at a special session beginning Monday.

Zedillo sent the 17-page bill to Congress on Wednesday, calling for "a new political order in Chiapas."

"The path is open for all personalities, all leaders and all organizations to participate in the construction of a new democratic order in Chiapas," Zedillo told Congress. "To that end, I believe it will help greatly to declare an amnesty that could give refuge to Zapatista members--on the condition that, in a peaceful way, they forge agreements that guarantee a peaceful solution."

On the perimeter of the former guerrilla stronghold in Chiapas, villagers Wednesday recounted their Zapatista neighbors' rapid flight last Friday as troops approached along the rutted dirt roads.

Only growling dogs now guard the ransacked cabins of La Estrella. Zapatistas, who reportedly fled to a nature preserve in the jungle, left a five-pound pot of beans rotting on one stove. A children's illustrated book about the Maya legend of creation and a Bible in Tzeltal, a Mayan dialect, were left on the ground.

"They all ran off into the mountains, even taking tiny babies," said Virginia Morales, a 29-year-old shopkeeper and mother of four down the road from La Estrella. "Those children are going to die."

The shacks' sparse furnishings--beds and a few crude chairs--were overturned, and clothing, blankets and food packages sent by relief agencies were strewn across dirt floors.

"They were terribly afraid, frightened that the army would kill them and their children," said Francisco Lorenzo, a resident of nearby San Miguel.

During the 13 months the rebels controlled the area, La Estrella residents were known as committed Zapatistas.

"Even the women carried guns and drilled," said Morales, adding while shaking her head: "They thought they could fight the army."

However, residents of nearby ranches denied widespread reports of a confrontation between the Mexican army and Zapatistas here.

"They fled long before the soldiers came," said Mateo Mendoza, who owns a 40-acre ranch two miles from the village. "I heard no gunfire."

In Mexico City, Zedillo gave no explanation for his decision to seek amnesty for the same leaders he ordered arrested just seven days earlier.

But he indicated that the military crackdown had been designed to reinstate the rule of law and the government's presence in a vast region where the rebels have held sway.

A committee of senators and House deputies--many of whom opposed the government's crackdown--is to arrive today in Chiapas' state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, where they hope to use the pending offer of amnesty to restore negotiations begun with the Zapatistas in late December, congressional sources said.

Asked whether the president's draft bill would exonerate Marcos, Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano said in a radio interview, "Yes, he would be a free man under the terms of the amnesty law."

Lozano, a member of the National Action Party and the first opposition party member to serve in a ruling party Cabinet, also attempted to justify the government's policy switch by saying, "Marcos . . . went into the jungle, and there was a risk of confrontation" if government forces continued to pursue him.

Lozano's office and other key Cabinet ministers launched a campaign to refute charges that government agents tortured Zapatista suspects to obtain confessions and that the army bombed civilians during its jungle operations. The charges came from international human rights groups as well as rebel leaders.

Lozano's office announced that judicial authorities had released six of the 19 Zapatista suspects arrested during the last week. And it confirmed that the Federal Judicial Police were breaking off their search for the rest of the fugitive leaders, including Marcos.

Zedillo last week identified the masked leader as a veteran leftist activist named Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente. Marcos has denied that is his name.

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