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Southern Mexico Under the Gun

Civilians take cover from bombs and bullets as the government tries to quell a rebellion

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LIKE two hunting hawks, the single-engine Mexican government aircraft circled and dove. The sudden staccato burst of high-caliber machine guns raised the hair on the back of our necks as the sound echoed off the jagged saw-tooth mountains.

Just three minutes earlier, we had left Irma Sanchez, a Tzotzil Indian, two other women, and six children in the foothills south of San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest city in Chiapas, Mexico's southern-most state. They had sat together, as if posing for a portrait in front of Irma's tiny, dirt-floor, thatched-roof home.

``The soldiers came past at about five o'clock yesterday afternoon,'' she recalled while nursing an infant. ``We were scared. I hid in my kitchen. We heard the `bombs' falling, just over there,'' she said, pointing to blue smoke rising half a mile away.

Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas was thrown on to the front pages on New Year's Day, when an indigenous rebel group called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched a rebellion against the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, demanding land, farm financing, better education services, and the release of Indian ``political prisoners.''

The rebellion coincided with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which one rebel commander called ``the death certificate of the indigenous people of Mexico.'' More than 50 people have died in fighting between government and rebel forces.

A Mexican government official later confirmed that the planes and helicopters of which Mrs. Sanchez spoke had been called in the previous day to support a company of Mexican Army soldiers who were ambushed by members of the EZLN. There were unconfirmed reports of wounded soldiers, and a US-made Bell helicopter made an emergency landing after being damaged by gunfire.

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