Mexico Takes Control of Rebel Strongholds : Chiapas: Guerrillas are seen heading deeper into mountains. Authorities confirm army colonel was slain.

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The Mexican army on Saturday fortified its positions in 11 towns that were strongholds of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, and authorities confirmed the first army casualty, a colonel apparently gunned down in an ambush.

Thirty helicopters, three combat airplanes, 30 light tanks and 32 armored cars were deployed to the rebel territory in the southern state of Chiapas, a spokesman for Mexico's National Defense Secretariat said.

Pilots who flew over said they saw troops advancing northward from a staging area at the former neutral zone of Guadalupe Tepeyac.

They also saw what appeared to be rebels heading further inward, toward rugged mountains and unsettled rain forest.

The whereabouts of Subcommander Marcos, branded a wanted man along with four other suspected rebel leaders last week, were still unknown Saturday. Reporters said they last saw him early Thursday in Guadalupe Tepeyac.

Mexico City's daily newspaper La Jornada, which has published dozens of interviews with the guerrilla leader and verbatim transcripts of his communiques during the past year, printed a letter Marcos wrote dated Feb. 2 to Interior Secretary Esteban Moctezuma Barragan.

Responding to rumors that President Ernesto Zedillo was planning to crack down on the Zapatistas, Marcos stated: "If that's so, well, you can proceed as you want. We will fight to the last man.

"What is coming, if nobody stops it, is guerrilla war," the subcommander added in the Jornada account, asserting that the rebels would win such a war.

Zedillo issued arrest warrants for the five Zapatista leaders last week, citing the discovery of arms caches and plans for rebel violence. He also revealed the identity of the mysterious leader Marcos.

The move was a turnaround in government policy, which had previously focused on a negotiated solution. And it was a high-stakes gamble for Zedillo, as some analysts predicted the president could lose political support and even spark a bloody guerrilla war.

Two of the five suspected leaders have been arrested, but have denied any connection to the uprising.

Military authorities in Chiapas confirmed that Col. Hugo Alfredo Manterola was killed, apparently by a sniper, on the road between the former rebel strongholds of Las Margaritas and Nuevo Momon. There were unconfirmed reports that another soldier died, and the government news agency Notimex said 10 were injured.

But officials said the ambush appeared to be an isolated incident, rather than the opening salvo of a new guerrilla war.

Reporters attempting to enter the rebel zone by airplane were turned back by army helicopters, continuing the government policy of strict control over information about the military action.

In a reversal of public sympathy when the Zapatistas took over several towns 13 months ago, demanding better living conditions and rights for Indians, opinion polls published in Mexico City on Saturday indicated broad popular support for the crackdown.

However, several thousand people--many chanting "We are all Marcos"--marched to Mexico City's main plaza to denounce the crackdown and express support for the Zapatistas.

And Mexicans in small villages at the edge of what has been rebel territory said they do not believe the government's actions will deter the rebels.

"This will go on," said Lauro Velasco, 33, the head of a 30-family, quasi-communal farm in Nueva Poza Rica, within sight of the Guatemalan border. "They say that if the army comes after (the rebels), they will be ready. They are willing to die."

Rebel attacks last year compelled many villagers to flee. But many here have decided to stay.

"When we fled last year, it was pure suffering," said Velasco, who spent two months in refugee camps before returning home. "If the comrades here do not kick us out, this time we will stay."

Zedillo pledged that civilians will have nothing to fear from the army and vowed to continue the operation strictly according to the law. He insisted that the new policy is neither authoritarian nor harsh, but a constitutional necessity to neutralize a threat to national security.

"Each and every one of the actions of the attorney general and the Mexican army has been conducted with the strict application of the law and with care to protect the humane civilian population and the indigenous communities in Chiapas," he declared in a communique issued from his official residence.

However, two men arrested as guerrilla leaders--Jorge Santiago Santiago and Jorge Javier Elorreaga--disputed the fairness of the government operation.

Santiago, the director of a statewide humanitarian agency for indigenous Mexicans, denied any connection to the rebels, and Elorreaga said he met Subcommander Marcos when he was producing a television documentary.

Elorreaga's wife, Maria Gloria Benavides, who was arrested last week, also blasted the government's actions.

In a Mexico City court, she charged that a widely publicized statement she allegedly made to police was falsified. She said she was forced to sign the statement--which reportedly identified Marcos as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, 37, the son of a middle-class businessman--without having read it.

"The whole story was made up," she told the judge.

The declaration was particularly embarrassing for Zedillo because judicial reform was one of his major campaign promises.

In addition, political criticism continued to mount--not only from the left but from a multi-party legislative commission Zedillo formed in December to negotiate a settlement with the rebels.

"Deferring negotiations and opening the possibility of a military option is a very painful attitude that, until now, only has blocked the road to peace," declared Sen. Pablo Salazar, a member of the commission. He is among 13 elected legislators who signed a communique calling on the president to re-establish the cease-fire with the rebels and restore the negotiating process.

Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a prominent social activist in San Cristobal de las Casas and the official mediator in the dispute, warned that the new policy meant "the highest probability of armed confrontation." Appealing for a return to the peace table, the bishop's National Intermediation Commission declared that the new policy has officially broken the fragile cease-fire between the rebels and the government.

The offensive is a complete turnaround from the government's previous strategy of trying to pressure the rebels to negotiate by pumping money into the long-neglected state of Chiapas.

"Now, anyone who needs a loan gets it," Velasco said. "This is the benefit we have received from their struggle."

Farmers in Nueva Poza Rica received loans of 1,000 pesos each--then worth about $300--to plant banana trees, an operation that turned out to be highly profitable, Velasco said.

Down the road in Castillo Tielma, electricity arrived. "I am content with what my government has given us," Absalom Cruz said. "I have my little piece of land and electricity. I am happy."

However, Zapatistas in his village are not content, he said, and their numbers have grown.

The rebels in Velasco's village also want more than banana trees, he acknowledged.

"They want liberty, and they want that liberty for the entire country," he said. "They do not want to be oppressed by the authorities."

Darling reported from Nueva Poza Rica and Fineman from Mexico City.

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