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Zedillo Says He’ll Never Negotiate With Rebels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calling them “terrorists and criminals” with an “absurd” social agenda, President Ernesto Zedillo vowed Friday never to negotiate with the armed rebels who staged half a dozen lightning attacks that left at least 14 dead this week in southern Mexico.

“No way! No way!” Zedillo said, rejecting any talks with the rebels. He made the remarks in an interview with The Times at his presidential residence. “They have acted criminally, with extreme violence, and their social platform is incoherent and absurd.”

Zedillo said he expects key arrests in coming days as the Mexican army and federal agents systematically “dismantle” the rebel Popular Revolutionary Army, which, after claiming responsibility for coordinated, fatal attacks in four states, called for a sweeping revolt against him and his government.

The president, whose aides have been negotiating with another rebel movement in the southernmost state of Chiapas for more than a year, drew a clear distinction between the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas and the new rebel force--an ultra-leftist guerrilla army known by its Spanish acronym, EPR.

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“Even though the Zapatistas began with violence, they soon took the decision to stop it. Also, [the Zapatistas] are a movement with a social base,” which the EPR lacks, Zedillo asserted. “The EPR has attempted to imitate the Zapatistas, especially in the way they deal with the media. But we have an expression in Spanish that goes, ‘A sequel is never as good as the original.’ And this is just a grotesque imitation.”

Meantime, armed men Friday attacked a military patrol in the state of Michoacan, killing one soldier and wounding several others. But a government official in Mexico City said the assailants were not rebels; they were drug traffickers, he said. And the EPR made no immediate claim of responsibility.

The new rebels’ propaganda, however, echoed that of the Zapatistas, who abandoned their 1994 armed rebellion after the uprising claimed more than 140 lives, mostly civilians, in two weeks of combat.

The EPR sent communiques to Mexico City media Friday calling for “a political struggle by all the people . . . to free themselves of the oppressive state.” The group stressed it “does not want war. But it isn’t possible to stand with crossed arms before the government’s crime and impunity, corruption, deceit and massive repression.”

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“The war isn’t against you,” the group, which has called for land reform and the renegotiation of Mexico’s foreign debt, told Mexicans. “It’s against those guilty of injustice and misery. We love peace, and, like you, we want to work, to study and to be together with our family.”

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But in popular resorts like Santa Cruz Huatulco, hit by the masked rebels, fear and anxiety were the reactions Friday to the EPR. Tourists expressed concern when greeted by the sight of army troops, and locals worried about how the assaults might harm their all-important tourism business.

In the capital, Zedillo and his security chiefs said they have identified the new rebel army as an outgrowth of radical, insurgent groups that were said to be active in the 1970s in Guerrero and Oaxaca--the two states where the most violent attacks by the insurgents took place this week.

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Intelligence gathered in arrests since EPR members first appeared--carrying AK-47 assault rifles at a June 28 ceremony commemorating slain peasants in Guerrero--points to links between them and an earlier rebel group known as the Revolutionary Workers’ Party and Clandestine Popular Union, or PROCUP, Zedillo and his aides said. The president said he expects members of PROCUP and other groups linked to it to be arrested soon.

“During the two decades that this group has existed, there has been no evidence of any willingness to negotiate,” Interior Undersecretary Arturo Nunez said Friday in explaining Zedillo’s stand. “It wants to obtain power by the means of arms.”

Nunez added that this week’s rebel attacks were timed to undercut Zedillo’s state of the union address Sunday. He estimated the group’s armed strength at between 200 and 350 and conceded its assaults “have created an atmosphere of insecurity that could affect the Mexican economy.”

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While the White House on Friday strongly condemned the rebel violence, the State Department said it saw no threat to Mexican political or economic stability.

“We condemn the violent actions of what appears to be a very ruthless, small, armed organization of obscure groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Mexican government,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters traveling with President Clinton on a campaign trip in Missouri.

State Department spokesman Glyn Davies, praising Mexico’s economic performance since its December 1994 peso crisis, added, “It’s important to underscore that the United States does not consider these actions threatening to Mexican political or economic stability.”

Nervous investors, attracted by higher U.S. interest rates and worried about political risk in Mexico, bailed out of Mexican stocks and drove the peso weaker in early trade.

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Mexican markets recovered most of the losses later. The peso closed 4.4 centavos weaker at 7.584 per dollar, and the stock market ended 29 points, or less than 1%, lower.

The Interior Department’s Nunez stressed that the Mexican army already has reinforced strategic sites, including oil facilities, major highways and power plants. And Zedillo insisted in the interview that he does not consider the EPR a grave threat to the nation’s security, saying: “I am totally convinced that this violent movement will not get any support from the people. . . . We will have absolute control of the situation.”

The president noted that the army and federal police are under strict orders not to create any new problems by employing strong-arm arrest or interrogation tactics as they intensify their two-month hunt for EPR members--not only in Guerrero and Oaxaca but in a vast, remote region that includes the states of Veracruz, Hidalgo and San Luis Potosi.

“There are still some open wounds in our country from the way some guerrilla groups were dealt with in the ‘70s,” Zedillo said. “In those days, the country used to think the ends justified the means, and there were serious violations of human rights.

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“This time, even though the army has been in Guerrero for two months--right in the zone where the EPR first appeared--there has been not even one claim of human rights violations against the army,” he asserted. “That may make us a little more vulnerable in the short term, but in the long term it will give us the moral authority we will need to pursue this group.”

* TROUBLE IN PARADISE

A popular resort struggles to put on a normal face. A10


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