MEXICO CITY -- Twelve people are reportedly dead in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan after federal troops clashed with vigilante "self-defense" groups late Monday, following government demands that the groups stand down in their fight against the Knights Templar drug cartel.
The newspaper Reforma, citing "preliminary reports from state sources," reported that seven civilians were killed in the municipality of Mugica, and that two civilians and three soldiers were killed in the municipality of Paracuaro.
The self-defense groups had taken up positions recently in these and other communities surrounding the city of Apatzingan, considered a stronghold of the Knights Templar, their sworn enemies.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam, interviewed Tuesday morning on the Milenio TV news channel, said it was too early to confirm a death toll. He said the federal troops planned to "reestablish legal order" in the region.
The vigilantes had said they were preparing to descend on Apatzingan to drive out the Knights Templar, raising the specter of a bloody battle for the city of more than 90,000 people. The Mexican government Monday responded by promising to take over security functions in the region, and demanding that the vigilantes lay down their arms and go home.
Vigilante leaders have given mixed responses to the government demand. Some said they would continue to fight.
Jose Manuel Mireles, a vigilante leader injured in a plane crash earlier this month, appeared in a video asking his followers to disarm and return to their daily labors. However, Reforma reported that he also said the vigilantes would not disarm until the government captured the top leaders of the drug cartel.
The self-defense groups emerged last year, claiming to protect the people against the Knights Templar, who had come to extort and otherwise terrorize residents throughout the Tierra Caliente, an important agricultural region west of Mexico City.
However, there are widespread suspicions that some of the self-defense groups are connected to a rival drug cartel locked in a turf war with the Knights Templar.