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Sunday, March 15, 1998 Published at 19:22 GMT

World: Americas

Mexican government strengthens Indian rights
image: [ Zapatista rebels unlikely to be pacified by latest offer ]
Zapatista rebels unlikely to be pacified by latest offer

The Mexican government is due to place before the country's congress on Sunday a constitutional change to recognise formally the existence of around 10m indigenous Indians for the first time.

Full details of the proposals have not been released, but officials have hinted that villages would be allowed to appoint their own leaders, according to Indian custom.

[ image: President Zedillo trying to break stalemate in peace talks]
President Zedillo trying to break stalemate in peace talks
The constitution would "recognise and consecrate the preservation and free development of Indian cultures, with full respect for their dignity."

The BBC correspondent in Mexico, Emma Paterson, says this would be a significant move in a nation that has traditionally ignored the rights of its Indian minority

However, our correspondent says it is not likely that indigenous communities will be offered the full autonomy envisaged by the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas.

The Zapatistas took up arms four years ago, and believe Mexican Indians should be given special land rights and permission to enforce their own laws.

The government says agreeing to those demands would jeopardise Mexican sovereignty and national unity.

Tension in Chiapas despite cease-fire

While a fragile ceasefire remains in force, tensions between rebel sympathisers and government supporters in Chiapas have led to frequent bouts of violence.

[ image: Funeral of 45 indians killed in December]
Funeral of 45 indians killed in December
The latest, and by far the worst, was the massacre of 45 Indian peasants in December 1997.

Human rights groups blamed pro-government paramilitaries for the attack.

Meanwhile, the government has recently been taking a harder-line stance in the province.

On Friday the Interior Ministry said it had expelled the fifth foreigner in two months for alleged meddling in Chiapas.

Foreign visitors allowed in on tourist visas are not allowed under the Mexican constitution to take part in political acts.

Indians in decline

The Indians are the original occupants of Mexico - their ancestors built the Mayan and Aztec empires there before the Spanish invaded in 1521.

In 1978, Indians were estimated at 14% of the country's population. By 1997, the figure had dropped to 12.5%, the the National Human Rights Commission said.

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