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Mexican Standoff: Rebels Set Up Separate Government in Chiapas

TWO men became governors Thursday in the southern state of Chiapas, where rebel Indians staged an uprising New Year's Day that caught the world's attention.

Eduardo Robledo Rincon, candidate of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, officially won an Aug. 21 election with 52 percent of the vote. But critics claimed the election was fraudulently stolen from opposition candidate Amado Avendano Figueroa. A lawyer and newspaper publisher, Mr. Avendano has set up a ''parallel government'' in protest of the August elections.

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Mr. Robledo was inaugurated in the plush City Theater in the state's capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, with President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon in attendance. Later in the day, Avendano read the same oath in the city's central plaza before about 5,000 campesinos (peasants) and Indians he represents.

Avendano ran under the banner of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, championing the rights of the majority indigenous population, or Zapatistas, who staged the surprise Jan. 1 rebellion that took over five Chiapan towns.

The National Intermediation Commission, appointed to seek peace between Mexico's government and peasant guerrillas, warned Saturday that the area is close to exploding into more violence.

Zapatista chief Subcommander Marcos warned that his rebel army was no longer bound by the cease-fire of last January. He said peace talks could only resume once Robledo resigns.

''The poor here have said enough to the exploitation and suffering that is their lives,'' Avendano said, after leaving a meeting with about 200 Zapatistas. ''This government is their vehicle.''

The Zapatistas first called for a ''transitional government'' to oversee the Aug. 21 presidential election. Having fallen short of that goal, they encouraged Avendano to form his own government on the state level.

Avendano says his government will help organize ''autonomous'' local governments that give local residents control over resources such as oil and timber and the ability to collect taxes. Avendano urged villages where he and the Zapatistas have strong support to stop paying taxes to the state government and contribute directly to his administration.

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Already, 14 small Indian communities in the highland region around San Cristobal have declared themselves autonomous, and have told Robledo's government to keep out.

MEANWHILE, President Zedillo and Robledo have chosen publicly to respect the parallel government, although they have stopped short of officially recognizing it. Neither wants to do anything that could endanger the delicate 11-month cease-fire with the 4,000-member Zapatista National Liberation Army, which remains surrounded by the much better armed Mexican military.

Zedillo has pledged to maintain the cease-fire and reopen negotiations. He also announced the creation of a high-level federal commission to focus on economic growth in Chiapas.

These wide-ranging proposals are meant to convince average Mexicans that the week-old government is sincerely interested in resolving the problems that have produced a region that comprises nearly one-fourth of all Mexicans living below poverty level.

But Avendano counters that Zedillo's proposals are nothing but repackaged policies of political corruption, police brutality, and virtual slavery that have produced salaries that are three times lower in Chiapas than the national average. In addition, the 30 percent illiteracy rate is the highest of any of Mexico's 31 states and Mexico City.

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