Zapatista rebels ready to talk with new Mexican President

 

The leader of the Zapatista rebels yesterday said he is ready to travel to Mexico City and negotiate with the country's new president, Mr Vicente Fox, for an end to the seven-year clash between the government and guerrillas.

The rebels took up arms under the leadership of "Subcomandante Marcos" on New Year's Day 1994 and this weekend's surprise move to wards peace negotiations brings to an end a four-year stalemate in which dozens have died.

In his inaugural speech last Friday, President Fox pledged to promote a law guaranteeing indigenous rights - a key demand of the Zapatistas - and promised a "new dawn" in the conflict-torn state of Chiapas.

In a dramatic midnight announcement, the president ordered troops to be pulled back in the southern state, just hours before Mr Marcos was due to appear in public for the first time in more than a year.

"The resumption of talks between the federal government and the Zapatista army is possible," Mr Marcos said on Saturday from his headquarters in the jungle village of La Realidad. The rebel leader, who walked out on government talks four years ago, said he would lead a delegation of 24 Zapatista commanders to Mexico City in February to lobby in favour of the indigenous rights bill. Mr Fox has promised to send the bill to the congress tomorrow.

The bill was elaborated from the San Andres accords signed in 1996, but the then government's failure to present it to congress prompted Mr Marcos to take his rebels back to their jungle hideouts.

"The country needs this law that will not only respond to indigenous demands but will be a great step forward for the peace process," Mr Marcos said. Although he set several conditions for a return to the peace table, including the permanent withdrawal of seven specific military camps near Zapatista strongholds, his general tone was positive.

"You start from zero in terms of credibility and trust," he said, reading an open letter to Mr Fox. Although he added a few gibes at the new president's "contradictions and frivolities", Mr Marcos described the initial troop withdrawal as "a sign of greater commitments to come." He also welcomed the naming of Mr Luis Alvarez (85), as Chiapas peace commissioner. The former senator is a long-time supporter of the indigenous rights bill.

Mr Fox received the news while on a whirlwind tour of the country during the second day of his inauguration celebrations. "With great happiness we have heard that the Zapatistas have accepted dialogue. There's a new way of thinking," he said.