ALMOST as abruptly as they appeared, the Mexican indigenous guerrillas pulled out of the last of the five towns they occupied on Jan. 1, disappearing on Tuesday - at least temporarily - into the surrounding pine-covered mountains from whence they came.
They have left behind a Mexican populace shaken by the violence. About one-third of the estimated 93 people killed were civilians.
The leftist rebels claim to be a ``people's army'' formed by popular demand to fight chronic injustices. And while some Mexicans grudgingly agree that the cause of the Zapatista National Liberation Army is just, many in the ``liberated'' towns are angered by the EZLN's tactics. In poorer rural areas there appears to be reserved support.
Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas condemns the ``suicidal'' methods of the guerrillas and is calling for a cease-fire so that negotiations can begin.
With the guerrillas in retreat, the government, which has been calling for talks since the rebellion began, yesterday outlined a tougher framework for dialogue. Eloy Cantu Segovia, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, released a statement saying the rebels must: end hostilities and aggression; turn in their weapons; return all hostages and prisoners; and identify EZLN leaders.
In the mountain township of Ocosingo, where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred, residents cautiously emerged from their homes for the first time in two days, carrying white flags. In the streets lay the bodies of almost two dozen guerrillas. Vultures and Army helicopter gunships circled grimly overhead.
``Thank God they're gone. They were mostly Central Americans; you could tell by their vocabulary. And they were paid by that Indian lover Bishop Samuel Ruiz to come here and create instability,'' says rancher Juan Gonzalez Latour.
A few blocks away, past the white, soot-stained walls of the burned out town hall incongruously festooned with Christmas decorations, Alberto Lopez offers a different view on the EZLN, estimated to number 800, who fled the town.
``Maybe the leaders are foreigners, but I recognize many of the soldiers as local Indians,'' Mr. Lopez says. ``They took care not to antagonize the civilians. They purposely destroyed only government property. When they arrived New Year's morning, they told us to stay calm and inside our homes. The fight wasn't with the Mexican people, they said, but with the Mexican Army.''
Government health worker Jose Gomez Gonzalez interrupts, angrily stating: ``If they wanted a fight, they should have done it among their own homes, in the forest. They shouldn't have come down here to fight in our homes.'' But, he adds moments later, pointing to a 1-foot-wide hole in the side of a nearby house, ``The Army must share some blame for using such heavy weapons in the city. They're too inaccurate.''
Neither Lopez nor Mr. Gomez supports the EZLN. ``It's true many Indians don't have water or electricity. But what they are trying to correct should be done through dialogue, not war,'' Gomez says. ``This is only going to create more anger and prejudice against the Indians.''
Some 12 miles away, in Chanal del Carmen, Eugenio Santiz carefully chooses his words. ``Naturally, we're afraid for our children in this war. But we agree with what the guerrillas want to do. Look at our roads and little houses,'' he says waving a calloused hand toward dirt footpaths. ``We need electricity, water, education for our children, and land.''
A Tzeltal Indian corn farmer, Mr. Santiz says three years ago, the local political boss persuaded the government to seize 200 hectares from the village to expand his cattle grazing operation. In June, police arrested 10 villagers. ``They accused them of robbery, property damage, and other crimes that we didn't even understand.'' Like many Chiapas Indians, Spanish is Santiz's second language.
``My personal view is that the guerrillas' methods are too dangerous. But maybe the government will take the warning and make some changes,'' he says.
Mexican attitudes toward the Zapatistas are colored by ongoing speculation and government claims that this is not a national rebellion but a movement directed by Central Americans. Sovereignty - and any hint of its violation - is a highly sensitive political issue in Mexican society.
``An important number of them are foreign nationals, particularly Salvadorans and Guatemalans,'' Mr. Cantu says. He described the EZLN leader ``Commander Marcos'' as a blond, green-eyed man who speaks four languages, implying that he must be a foreigner.
Though the rebels have pulled out of San Cristobal, sporadic fighting continues nearby. Late Tuesday, Mexican aircraft strafed and bombed hills south of the city. About 150 Mexican soldiers pursued the group of rebels who fired on the aircraft while they retreated with heavy machine guns, according to witnesses.