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Guatemala guerrillas unite just before crucial election

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With presidential balloting less than a month away, Guatemala's bitter civil war is escalating as four major leftist guerrilla groups join in a unified command.

The combined guerrilla command signals a new phase in Guatemala's continuing civil strife. It is the first time that the country's leftist guerrillas have come together against their common enemy -- the Guatemalan government.

The joint guerrilla organization has yet to be tested. It remains to be seen whether the four groups, with their individual leaderships and characteristics, can meld successfully.

But the Guatemalan government reports this week that the guerrillas have been stepping up their activities in an apparent attempt to disrupt the March 7 general elections.

Guerrillas, for example, attacked three towns Feb. 8 in Huehuetenango Province, bordering Mexico, and destroyed all registry records -- an action that will prove tremendously disruptive in the frequent disputes over land titles.

But the guerrillas are not responsible for all the violence. Some of it clearly springs from rightist death squads. Many incidents in Guatemala City are routinely ascribed to ''unidentified gunmen.''

Three dozen persons were killed by such gunmen in the past week, including well-known industrialist David Zaid Villalobos on Feb. 9 and respected editor Roberto Hiron Lemus on Feb. 5. Both rightists and leftists are thought to have been angry at Mr. Zaid and Mr. Hiron, who were regarded as moderates.

Mr. Hiron, however, also served as publicity chief for Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara, the ruling coalition party's candidate for the presidency. He was accused by a guerrilla group of ''having sold out to the forces of reaction,'' a charge that leads some observers to believe Mr. Hiron was targeted by the guerrillas.

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