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Sunday, January 4, 1998 Published at 17:52 GMT

World: Analysis

Mexico: What's Going On In Chiapas?
image: [ Refugees in Polho look at a mural of Emiliano Zapata, founder of the Zapatista movement ]
Refugees in Polho look at a mural of Emiliano Zapata, founder of the Zapatista movement

The Mexican Interior Minister was replaced on Saturday - a result, it is believed, of mounting political pressure following the massacre of some forty-five Indian peasants in the southern state of Chiapas two weeks ago. Local people suspect that the massacre was carried out by pro-government paramilitaries. There were also allegations that the Mexican army has been surrounding rebel areas and torturing local people. Our reporter Edmund Butler looks at the background to the latest situation:

The rebellion in Chiapas began in early 1994. Calling themselves "Zapatistas" after the famous Mexican revolutionaries of the early 1900s, the rebels were demanding greater rights and self-determination for the indigenous peoples of the area. The early conflict saw some 150 die in fighting as the Mexican army moved in. The independent group, Human Rights Watch America, was one of many at the time reporting grave violations by troops.

For its part, the Mexican government called on the rebels to adopt more peaceful means of negotiation. To some extent, rebel demands have been met. Last year saw true multi-party elections in Mexico for the first time. And there is now, across Mexico, a greater awareness of the cultural and ethnic claims of Mexico's indigenous, American-Indian population - which makes up the majority of the country's 80 million people.

Despite the democratic reforms, talks between the government of President Ernesto Zedillo and the Chiapas rebels have broken down, after the government rejected a key rebel demand concerning the rights of poor Indian communities. Army operations to disarm the Zapatistas have continued. And in a dramatic development, on December 22nd, unidentified, masked gunmen entered a rebel area and started shooting. A local priest, Father Gonzalo Iduarte gave details of the attack:

"The were for a few days already in Acteal fleeing from violence and they were attacked by a paramilitary group that killed at least forty five people and injured at least twenty five. Most of them women and children. When it began they called me by phone and I called immediately the state government. The police were very close and they didn't participate, they didn't do anything to stop this attack."

There is a strong suspicion among local people and some human rights groups of government involvement in the attack. Some days later a local mayor, and a member of the ruling PRI party was arrested in connection with the massacre. And now the Interior Minister has resigned - officially for personal reasons - although many observers believe Emilio Chuayffet was fired, amid a government reshuffle designed, in the President's words, to restart the peace process. The new minister, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, says he will use all means possible to find peace.

"We will not curtail our efforts to reach peace in Chiapas, a dignified peace that will alow the state to fight misery and marginalisation. Isolation, violence, land invasions, and the presence of so many weapons only contributes to the civic and moral backwardness of Chiapas, and the deterioration of the life-style of its inhabitants."

Mr Labastida is said to be a skilled negotiator and a more conciliatory figure than his predecessor - although peasant groups are angry that he has still refused to stop army efforts to disarm the rebels. Today there are conflicting reports in the region. Rebel sources say the government has surrounded their mountain stronghold of La Realidad and is detaining and torturing peasants in a bid to capture the rebel leader. The government says the reports are completely untrue, and blame a rebel propaganda campaign. The BBC's Emma Patterson is in the region.

"I certainly think it's very doubtful that the army has launched a major offensive against the rebel stronghold, but what does seem to happening is that government troops are mobilising in the area.

"There are an awful lot of troops out, requisitioning a number of local schools. And I think this is part of a government strategy, warning the rebels that they have to come back to the negotiating table, that they are outgunned, outnumbered, and are unlikely to find a settlement without some conciliatory move on their part...

"I think in spite of the rhetoric by the government, the main sticking points remain the same. The Zapatistas are demanding autonomy for Indian communities. they want their own government, their own security forces, and their own laws in those communities and that threatens the integrity of the Mexican state. I see very little room for maneouvre between the two sides on that issue."

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