Zapatistas to appear before Mexican Congress

03/23/2001 - Updated 08:27 AM ET

Zapatistas to appear before Mexican Congress

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Mexico's Zapatista rebels say they will stay in the capital to fight for peace, accepting a proposal to promote an Indian rights bill before Congress.

Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos said Zapatista representatives would meet with lawmakers Friday to determine a date and format for the rebels' appearance.

"It appears that the doors to peace are starting to open," Marcos said in a late-night news conference Thursday outside the university where the rebels are staying.

"If there are no tricks, the Zapatista National Liberation Army will be in the Congress promoting the constitutional recognition of the rights and culture of the indigenous people."

In a last-minute effort to salvage peace in the southern state of Chiapas, legislators narrowly passed a measure Thursday requiring at least 100 members of the 682-seat Congress to be present when the rebels make their pitch.

Following a two-week journey from Chiapas, the 24 Zapatista leaders had pledged to stay in Mexico City until the Indian rights bill was approved. But early this week, angry that Congress refused to let them speak from the podium of its chambers, they announced they would leave on Friday.

Although the rebels accepted the offer to speak before lawmakers, they again rejected President Vicente Fox's invitation to meet with Marcos, saying he had not yet met their conditions to reopen talks with the government.

"We have the desire for true dialogue and to reach a rapid peace," masked rebel Comandante Zebedeo said at a news conference, stressing the Zapatistas want to start talks once their conditions are met.

In addition to the rights bill, the rebels want all military bases in Chiapas closed and all Zapatista sympathizers imprisoned on federal charges released.

Fox has closed four of seven bases and announced Wednesday he would turn three others into Indian community centers. Most of the jailed rebels have been released, and Fox proposed the bill to Congress after he took office in December.

Zebedeo complained that the last three bases were still open and that some sympathizers remained in jail.

"You know that for many years we have been tricked with false promises," he said. "So we do not trust in words, but in deeds."

Fox, who was in Los Angeles on Thursday, said he had met all the Zapatistas' demands and called again for a meeting with Marcos.

"Marcos, neither you nor I want the indigenous people of our country to remain in the margins of society, in extreme poverty, in exclusion and obscurity," Fox wrote in his invitation, which was circulated publicly Thursday. "Let's not allow ... inflexibility to eclipse the desire for peace that all Mexicans have."

The rebels seized six towns in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994. Twelve days of fighting left more than 145 dead before a cease-fire took hold. Peace talks stalled in 1996 after the government of former President Ernesto Zedillo rejected an Indian rights bill.

Meanwhile, in Chiapas on Thursday, cattlemen and landowners demonstrated in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding that the Zapatista leaders be prevented from returning to the state and be ordered to give back land and cattle seized during spates of violence in 1994 and 1995.

"We're going to block the return of the Zapatistas, and to fight to the end," said Constantino Kanter, an organizer of demonstrations that drew about 2,000 people.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Chiapas Indians briefly took over two radio stations in the city and broadcast messages of support for the Zapatistas.

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