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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Key Mexican rights bill approved
Zapatista rebels
The Zapatistas made the law a condition for returning to peace talks
The Mexican Senate has unanimously passed an indigenous rights bill crucial for peace in the strife-torn state of Chiapas, where Zapatista rebels took up arms seven years ago.

The legislation will now be taken up by the lower house of Congress, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

The Zapatistas have made passage of the bill a key demand for returning to peace talks that have been stalled since late 1996.

Vincente Fox
The bill was one of Mr Fox's first acts as president
Senators approved the legislation, calling for modifications to five articles of the constitution, including provisions on the right to self-determination for indigenous communities.

The government of President Vicente Fox has gone far to meet other conditions set by the rebels for returning to peace talks.

Government concessions

These include the withdrawal of government troops from seven military bases in rebel territory - completed last week - and the release of Zapatista rebels from the nation's jails. That task is almost complete.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up in armed revolt in the southern jungle state on 1 January 1994, to champion the rights of Mexico's 10 million mostly marginalised Indians.

The initiative passed on Wednesday was a modified version of the bill sent to Congress by Mr Fox in December. It was one of his first official acts after assuming office. His victory ended 71 years of single-party rule in Mexico.

The Fox bill proposed changes to seven constitutional articles, two more than in the modified initiative.

'Historic' measure

Senators hailed Wednesday's vote as "historic". But Demetrio Sodi, of the centre-left Democratic Revolution Party and a member of the committee that drew up the bill, cautioned his colleagues that it did not "spell an end to the conflict" between the EZLN and the government.

The goodwill and optimism behind Senate approval of the law may not be enough to push it through both houses of Congress, as legislators continue to discuss its ramifications.

The right to self-determination, for example, has raised some objections among lawmakers, who worry that granting autonomy to indigenous communities could create Indian territories. That would contravene federal laws and perhaps lead to the "Balkanisation" of the country.

Other constitutional changes involve autonomy in areas such as culture, community and law enforcement.

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20 Mar 01 | Americas
Zapatistas head back to jungle
16 Mar 01 | Americas
Marcos vows to fight on
15 Mar 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
In the footsteps of Zapata
02 Apr 01 | Media reports
Press says long road ahead for Zapatistas
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