Zapatista rebels walk out of peace talks


A dozen military and migration roadblocks temporarily faded into the jungle undergrowth this weekend as 29 Zapatista rebels received a last-minute escort from the International Red Cross to attend meetings promoting government-rebel dialogue - and then walked out.

The Zapatistas met COCOPA, a legislative commission, and 2,000 representatives of popular organisations from across Mexico, to plan a national referendum early next year over the San Andres peace accord.

The rebels have named 5,000 militia members, divided equally between men and women, to travel to every voting district in Mexico and canvass support for the San Andres accord on Indigenous Culture and Rights, signed by government officials in February 1996, but later rejected by President Ernesto Zedillo.

In the first meeting between COCOPA and Zapatista representatives in two years, the rebel delegates abruptly walked out after 40 minutes, criticising the "racist" and "humiliating" attitude of the 16 legislators who, they say, had failed to provide basic services for their three-day stay in San Cristobal.

A second COCOPA meeting was to take place late last night, , promising minimal progress towards re-establishing direct talks with the government. The inauguration of the rebel meeting coincided with Mexico's Revolution Day, a national holiday in which insurgent heroes like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa are celebrated. Hundreds of schoolchildren marched through San Cristobal, carrying mock rifles and banners, shouting Zapata's war cry "Land and Freedom" just metres away from the town's convention centre, where neo-Zapatistas planned a second revolution.

Zapatista Commander David accused the government and armed forces of pursuing a "war of extermination" against the indigenous people.

Mexico's Interior Minister Francisco Labastida dismissed the rebel gathering as a farce and told reporters that the rebels had "no intention" of coming to an agreement with the government. He accused them of buying time in order to influence the outcome of the presidential elections in 2000. Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos, in his first interview this year, countered: "It's the government who have been playing for time. The government doesn't want peace because it is not prepared to pay the price of peace, so they try out different strategies, talking one minute, ordering a military strike the next."