Government, rebels fight war of words over Chiapas

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) — Mexico’s government has taken out full-page newspaper ads denying involvement in the massacre of 45 Indians in Chiapas, distancing itself from an attack linked to local members of the ruling party.
And in a bid to counter the peaceful image that Chiapas’ Zapatista rebels are trying to cultivate, the government said the army has discovered a small arms cache in a pro-Zapatista village near the attack site in the highlands of southern Mexico.
“The federal government wants peace … and to avoid new episodes of violence,” said the advertisement placed by the Interior Ministry, published in several national newspapers.
It also insisted President Ernesto Zedillo’s Institutional Revolutionary Party had no part in funding or directing the paramilitaries blamed for the Dec. 22 massacre in the hamlet of Acteal.
Historian and former rebel advisor Antonio Garcia de Leon called the unusual ad a sign that the ruling party is worried about evidence linking its local members to the attack.
“Instead of resolving the conflicts, (government officials) are spending time responding to the Zapatista communiques,” he said.
The government also has been offering free haircuts and medicine handouts in the region since the attack.
The Zapatistas, heavily outmanned and outgunned, have long portrayed themselves as peaceful, long-suffering tenants of the moral high ground, pursuing Indians’ rights.
Their leader, Subcomandante Marcos, said last week the Zapatistas had bought no weapons since now-stalled peace talks began in 1994.
But army troops said they found two AK-47 automatic rifles, M-1 carbines, shotguns and pistols, radio equipment and Zapatista propaganda in Chiptic, 90 miles east of San Cristobal, the largest city in the southern state of Chiapas.
Chiptic residents said in a complaint delivered to journalists that soldiers entered their homes claiming to represent the public prosecutor, and showed no search warrant when looking for weapons.
The Zapatistas mustered some 400 barefoot indigenous women clad in rebel-style ski masks and carrying sticks to confront the troops.
“The army does not have the faculty to search. That is constitutionally reserved for the judicial police, and only then with a judge’s order,” said Jose Montero, a lawyer with the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center.
A 1995 federal law protects rebels from arrest in the absence of a flagrant criminal act, and authorities have in some cases permitted them to carry weapons.
Chelsea are using for their four-day winter vacation. The president was on the golf course Saturday.
The Clintons returned to Washington on Sunday.