SEVERAL towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas remained tense yesterday after two days of confrontations between the Mexican Army and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).
Mexican officials reported at least 57 people had died in the Indian uprising that started Jan. 1, including some 30 soldiers and police officers.
The rebels reportedly kidnapped former Gov. Absalon Castellanos Dominguez, a former general who governed Chiapas from 1982 to 1988. The government called for negotiations with all sides to get the situation back to normal.
One rebel, Comandante Marcos, told reporters that the declared war against the Mexican government was prompted by crimes against indigenous people, the need for just land distribution, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect Jan. 1, the day of the uprising.
``The North American Free Trade Agreement is the death certificate for the indigenous people of Mexico. We rose up in arms to respond to [President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's] death sentence against our people,'' he said.
The rebels withdrew from San Cristobal de las Casas, the largest of five towns seized on Jan. 1, late Saturday, but then attacked a Mexican Army base six miles outside the town. Near the Rancho Nuevo military base, reporters found 14 bodies, at least 10 in rebel uniforms, on the roadside near a minibus. Fighting also raged in the town of Ocosingo.
San Cristobal is now occupied by Mexican Army special forces brought in from Mexico City, says resident Pablo Ferias. ``These are not local troops,'' he says. ``Five or six Army helicopters have been shuttling wounded in all day. The local hospital is full. The situation remains very confusing.''
Tourists trapped in San Cristobal during the fighting have fled. There are unconfirmed reports that the EZLN rebels were pulling out of the other occupied towns. There are also local reports that the guerrillas attempted to storm a prison and free the mostly Indian inmate population. Before pulling out of San Cristobal, the rebel troops ransacked the town hall.
Reports said that hostages were taken in Ocosingo, where the town hall was burned, aircraft were disabled, and the three bridges leading into town were destroyed. Literature left behind in San Cristobal stated the EZLN would march on Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Questions remain about who is behind the uprising. ``These are mostly Mexican highland peasants and they come from traditionally conflictive areas,'' says Dr. Ferias, a psychiatrist who has worked with indigenous groups. ``But the money it took to mount this campaign couldn't be their own.''
Ferias says some residents of San Cristobal claim to have heard rebels who spoke with Guatemalan or Salvadoran accents.