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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 17:41 GMT
Zapatista leader stars as comedian
Marcos in 1999 interview
Subcomandante Marcos, seen here in a 1999 interview
Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos has appeared on Mexican national television in a ground-breaking interview with one of the country's most famous comedians.

In a light-hearted break from guerrilla duties, Mr Marcos, armed and smoking a pipe, spent 15 minutes exchanging jokes with Andres Bustamente at his jungle hideout in the southern state of Chiapas.

We don't have to fake a solemnity we don't have

Subcomandante Marcos
Mr Bustamente, playing the role of a dishevelled oaf, asked his interviewee probing questions such as why he wore his trademark black ski mask, and whether or not it got in the way.

The mask, he was told, was the emblem of the Zapatistas' seven-year armed struggle for greater autonomy for impoverished Indians in Chiapas.

"We'll take it off when the conflict is over."

Zapatista supporters
The Zapatistas demand the implementation of the 1996 peace deal
"And can you comb your hair?" the comedian, whose nickname translates as the chatterbox, quipped in reply.

Like Mr Bustamente, the rebel leader is renowned for his sense of humour, a quality he attributes to the movement's close links with the Mexican people.

"We don't have to fake a solemnity we don't have," he told viewers.

When the comedian presented him with what he said was a gift from Mexico's new President, Vicente Fox, Subcomandante Marcos asked whether it was a letter bomb.

It turned out to be an oversized belt buckle spelling out the president's surname.

Peace talks

At one point the exchange even threatened to get serious.

Mr Bustamente pulled a mobile phone from his pocket and staged a mock call from the president, asking if the rebels were ready to return to peace talks.

President Fox
President Fox: Resolving the conflict is a priority
Subcomandante Marcos said talks could restart immediately - given certain provisos.

"If today the three conditions are met, today we get together," he said.

He has demanded that Mr Fox send an Indian rights bill to Congress, release Zapatista supporters from jail and close seven military bases.

Mr Fox, who took office last December, has moved quickly to comply in part - submitting the bill, freeing some prisoners and closing four bases.

But he has slowed the pace of concessions recently amid criticism that he was giving too much away and has called for the rebels to restate their commitment to dialogue.

The Zapatistas and government forces have stayed at arms' length since a truce went into effect 12 days after the 1994 New Year's Day uprising that left about 200 people dead.

Talks broke down four years ago.

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See also:

23 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico shuts Chiapas army base
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico rebels to talk peace
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico's peasant revolt
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Vicente Fox: The road ahead
21 Aug 00 | Americas
Opposition claims victory in Chiapas
14 Feb 00 | Americas
Mexico urged to stop Chiapas patrols
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