Rebels Hail Chiapas Base Closing

By ALEJANDRO RUIZ 

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) - The leader of the Zapatista rebels hailed last week's closing of an army base in troubled Chiapas state as a major victory for the guerrillas and a major step toward peace.

The letter, signed by rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos and released to the media late Saturday, was the first response from the rebels since Friday's handover of the base in remote Amador Hernandez - part of new President Vicente Fox's aggressive strategy to woo the Zapatista rebels back to the negotiating table.

``This is a good sign and the first and important step on the road toward reinitiating talks,'' the rebel leader said in the letter.

But he said the continued withdrawal of troops from the region was not so much a victory for Fox as it was for the Zapatistas and their supporters, who never gave up their fight.

Marcos led an armed uprising on Jan. 1, 1994, dividing much of Chiapas state into pro- and anti-rebel forces that have clashed ever since. The rebel demands mixed socialist economics with more passionate calls for democracy, development and respect for Mexico's long-oppressed Indians.

``The triumph that represents the withdrawal of the army from this place belongs to the indigenous Zapatistas and the national and international society that never left us,'' the rebel leader said.

But Marcos said if Fox fulfills all his promises, including releasing scores of Zapatista prisoners, ``the Zapatistas will respond in kind.''

Fox, who was sworn in as president Dec. 1, ending 71 years of single-party rule, has made peace in southern Chiapas a top priority.

One of his first actions was to order the closing of 53 military roadblocks across the state and the withdrawal of 2,200 troops scattered in some of the state's tensest areas. He also gave Congress an Indian rights bill the Zapatistas support - and that the previous government had rejected.

The rebels said they were encouraged by Fox's moves and would return to the negotiating table under certain conditions, including a more complete withdrawal of troops.

On Friday, Fox ordered the final 75 troops at Amador Hernandez, a remote jungle town 100 miles east of the highlands city of San Cristobal de las Casas, to turn their base over to Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar, and to retreat.

Salazar immediately gave the land, taken by government decree when the army moved in last year, back to the community.

On Sunday, Fox's government also lifted restrictions imposed on hundreds of foreigners who were expelled from the country in recent years, many of whom conducted humanitarian work in Chiapas.

The decision eliminates the need for a special visa that was required for foreigners to participate in fact-finding missions, the president's office said.

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