Mexico's Zapatista rebels say they'll return to peace talks with government

LA REALIDAD, Mexico - The leader of Mexico's Zapatista rebels said Saturday that he would come out of hiding in the southern jungle and travel to Mexico City to restart peace talks that have been stalled since 1996.

The ski-masked Subcomandante Marcos made the statement a day after Mexico's new president ordered a push for peace, pulling back some troops from Zapatista strongholds and sending a rebel-backed Indian rights bill to Congress.

In a news conference deep in the southern Lacandon Jungle, Marcos said he was still distrustful of President Vicente Fox, whose inauguration on Friday ended a 71-year string of presidents from the same party. However, he said, Fox's first actions were encouraging, ''a sign of better compromises to come.''

Smoking a pipe through his ski mask and with an AR-15 rifle strapped to his back, Marcos said he would travel in February to the capital with his top commanders in an effort to ensure that Congress approves the Indian rights bill. He said it would be his first time out of the jungle in 15 years.

''We will go and we will see what happens,'' he said. ''We are leaving to do the work our companions are counting on us to do: to bring this war to an end.''

At a rally Saturday night in the northern city of Monterrey, Fox said he welcomed Marcos' statements.

''The Zapatistas have accepted dialogue. There's a new attitude, a new way of thinking,'' he said. ''Let's have dialogue.''

The Zapatistas walked out of talks with the government of outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo four years ago when he balked at the language of the Indian rights bill proposed by a Congressional committee.

The bill, backed by the rebels, was supposed to implement the only substantive agreement so far between the two sides, which have maintained a wary cease-fire since January 1994.

The Zapatistas, a leftist, predominantly Indian group, also have repeatedly demanded a pullback of the tens of thousands of troops in the areas where the rebels are influential, and have demanded that the government free Zapatista prisoners and disband paramilitary groups.

Marcos said Saturday night that those conditions still apply before peace talks can begin. Fox already appeared to be removing those obstacles.

In his first action as president, Fox sent the rejected Indian rights bill to Congress for approval, and ordered troops to withdraw from sensitive spots in Chiapas and to dismantle roadblocks.

''The new dialogue begins with deeds, not words. The new dialogue speaks with the sincerity of actions,'' read a communique signed by Fox's interior secretary, Santiago Creel, and his Chiapas aide, Luis H. Alvarez.

In La Realidad, Marcos said he approved of Alvarez as a negotiator. As a federal senator in 1996, Alvarez had helped negotiate the Indian rights bill.

Marcos said Fox's actions showed good will, but that he was distrustful of the pro-business president.

Marcos said he wouldn't let the new president turn Mexico into ''a giant department store ... where human lives and natural resources are bought and sold as the market demands.''

Then he addressed Fox directly:

''During your campaign, you have said time and again that you are willing to reopen dialogue. Zedillo said the same thing ... then launched a major offensive against us.''

The rights bill would grant Indian communities more control over their territory and the right to make laws and elect officials according to their traditional customs. The Zedillo administration had opposed the part about land control, saying it endangered national sovereignty.

Marcos said the Zapatistas aren't interested in seizing power. He said if the war were to end, they would form a political organization, but not a political party.

Asked why not, he said: ''First of all, because we'd lose.''

With Saturday's meeting, the offbeat rebel leader proved that he can still draw a small army of international journalists to this muddy mix of rusted roof shacks and outhouses with little more than a pledge to show up.

His presence still commands the attention of his country and the world, even almost seven years after he led a rebellion that lasted less than two weeks.

Fox made Chiapas a priority of his new administration, and during the campaign had bragged - in what was much criticized as bravado - that he could solve the Chiapas problem in 15 minutes.

While he may be prone to exaggeration, Saturday's developments showed more progress than the previous government had made in at least four years.

The communique from Fox's government said the withdrawal of troops and the lifting of checkpoints would ''generate a climate favorable to renewing negotiations'' to end the rebellion.

Military and immigration officials had used the checkpoints to prevent movement of weapons in a region where clashes between pro- and anti-Zapatista factions are common.

They also tried to hamper support for the rebels. Foreign backers of the rebels were sometimes deported on grounds of interfering in local politics after being stopped at the checkpoints.

The government said it ordered the checkpoints dismantled and the troops out of the camps alongside those checkpoints. But reporters on Saturday found many soldiers were still stationed in the roadside camps.

Creel, traveling with Fox in the neighboring state of Oaxaca on Saturday, told The Associated Press that the soldiers would eventually withdraw.


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