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Mexico, Rebels Plan New Talks in Peace Move

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal government and Indian rebel leaders in Chiapas on Friday were arranging an imminent face-to-face meeting between top officials and the Zapatista National Liberation Army after the rebels and their political backers offered concessions for peace.

Declaring that “a calming rain” has begun to fall on Mexico’s embattled southernmost state, Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a key mediator in the yearlong conflict, confirmed that the Zapatistas on Thursday night extended a temporary cease-fire, ordering an end to all offensive operations in the region for another week.

In an eleventh-hour concession that further defused the threat of violence, opposition party leader Amado Avendano and his self-declared “government in rebellion” vowed to end their campaign to forcibly take over dozens of town halls throughout the embattled southern state.

Fears of widespread bloodshed peaked this week after police opened fire on hundreds of peasants as they stormed the municipal headquarters of a remote Chiapas town, and the protesters retaliated by torturing and killing the local police chief and his deputy.

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Two peasants and two men described only as civilians were also killed in the melee.

Both sides indicated Friday that the latest peace effort will culminate in the first public meeting between the Zapatistas and the government since March. Negotiations then to resolve an armed New Year’s Day uprising that left at least 145 dead in 12 days led to a tentative agreement--one the rebels and their supporters rejected two months later. The threat of renewed fighting has helped shape Mexico’s economic and political crises ever since.

Friday’s peace moves came amid heavy sighs of relief in the nation’s capital as the Mexican government expressed official gratitude to President Clinton for a multibillion-dollar economic bailout plan that the U.S. Congress indicated Friday it most likely would approve.

Aides to President Ernesto Zedillo reported that the Mexican leader personally thanked Clinton during a telephone conversation late Thursday for his support in leading the credit bailout, stressing that the U.S. commitment to guarantee additional loans of up to $40 billion for Mexico will continue to stabilize the country’s financial markets and help the nation “overcome the economic emergency.”

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Mexico’s economic crisis was triggered by a one-day uprising by the Zapatistas on Dec. 19, when hundreds of armed rebels and peasant supporters briefly took over town halls and major high ways throughout the state.

An estimated $1 billion in capital fled the country that day, causing the Zedillo government to suddenly devalue the currency. The peso lost more than a third of its value in a week, which triggered additional capital flight and panic in the markets that together pushed some interest rates up to almost 50%. The events forced Zedillo to declare a “national economic emergency.”

As the Mexican economy unraveled, though, Zedillo made a key concession to the rebels in Chiapas, agreeing to the Zapatista demand that Bishop Ruiz and his National Intermediation Council arbitrate future talks between the Zapatistas and the government.

The rebel leader known as Subcommander Marcos agreed to withdraw his guerrilla force to within the Zapatistas’ rain forest stronghold near the Guatemalan border.

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Zedillo consistently has pledged to seek a political solution to rebel demands for land reform and equal rights for indigenous Mexicans. And he has declared that the Mexican army, which is deployed in force in Chiapas, will remain in defensive positions.

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As high-ranking officials from Zedillo’s interior secretariat laid the groundwork for the imminent peace session, the president reinforced that stand during a speech late Thursday.

“The essential word is ‘unity,’ ” the president told a group of political leaders that included all three major opposition parties in the town of Iztapalapa. “Mexico very soon will be on the road to progress that all Mexicans demand, and we are going to do it with justice, with democracy and with the cooperation of all Mexicans.”

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At the same time, leaders of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party in Chiapas announced that they will “establish a truce to civil resistance,” effectively breaking off their strategy of seizing municipal buildings in several dozen towns where Avendano’s government in rebellion claims support.

The truce, which came after a deputy interior secretary secured the release of three opposition party members arrested in connection with this week’s violent clash at the Chicomuselo town hall, was billed as an additional catalyst for the peace talks between the Zapatistas and the government.

“We will abstain from taking over town halls, blocking highways and staging any actions that could put our countrymen at risk, but above all that could cloud the dialogue between the federal government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army,” the party’s state committee declared.

In a midnight communique from Subcommander Marcos addressed to “the people and governments of the world,” the Zapatistas added their voice to the peace process, declaring that a temporary cease-fire scheduled to expire Thursday will be extended for an additional week.

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“The meeting between representatives of the national government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army is imminent,” the communique said.

In response, opposition party leader Avendano told reporters that the rebel communique signified that there were moves toward peace, and he was “as satisfied as Bishop Samuel Ruiz.”

* RELATED STORIES: D1


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