TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico — The chief prosecutor in Mexico's Chiapas state freed 17 jailed Zapatista rebels Saturday in the latest move to woo rebels to the negotiating table and end a seven-year conflict.
The releases--the first of 103 prisoners that Prosecutor Mariano Herran Salvati has said he will free--were among the conditions imposed by the Zapatista rebels for restarting peace talks stalled since 1996. Herran Salvati did not say when the rest would be released.
The rebels led a brief uprising Jan. 1, 1994, in the name of Indian rights. Since then, rebel sympathizers and paramilitary groups have often sparred, forcing many poor Indians to flee communities across the southern state.
Zapatista rebel Misael Perez Galvez was among the 17 prisoners freed Saturday.
"Today, for me, a new Mexico has been born with my freedom," Perez said. "I believe the freedom of my Zapatista companions is a fairly clear sign, and if this continues, we are doing well toward reinitiating peace talks."
The move fulfills a promise made by Gov. Pablo Salazar, who took office Dec. 8.
"We want to open the gates to be able to close a painful chapter in Chiapas," said Salazar, who met with the released prisoners.
President Vicente Fox, who ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 70-year grip on power, has promised to make peace with the rebels. Hours after taking office Dec. 1, Fox ordered the closing of military checkpoints in Chiapas and later sent an Indian rights bill to Congress, fulfilling two of the rebel demands.