Chiapas governor releases Zapatista rebels in Mexico

By ALEJANDRO RUIZ

The Associated Press

12/30/00 6:06 PM

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico (AP) -- The head prosecutor of Mexico's Chiapas state freed 17 jailed Zapatista rebels Saturday in the latest move to woo rebels to the negotiating table and end a seven-year conflict.

The releases -- the first of 103 prisoners that Prosecutor Mariano Herran Salvati has said he will free -- met a condition of the Zapatista rebels to restart peace talks, which have been stalled since 1996. Herran Salvati did not say when the rest would be released.

The rebels led a brief uprising on Jan. 1, 1994, in the name of Indian rights. Since then, rebel sympathizers and paramilitary groups have often sparred, forcing many poor Indians to flee communities across the state.

Zapatista rebel fighter Misael Perez Galvez was among the 17 prisoners who walked out of the Cerro Hueco prison Saturday and into the noon sun. After serving five years for participating in the uprising, she was greeted by government dignitaries who called her a freedom fighter.

"Today for me, a new Mexico has been born with my freedom," Perez said. "I believe the freedom of my Zapatista companions is a fairly clear sign, and if this continues we are doing well toward reinitiating peace talks."

The move fulfills a promise made by Gov. Pablo Salazar, who took office Dec. 8.

"We want to open the gates to be able to close a painful chapter in Chiapas," said Salazar, who met with the released prisoners during a small ceremony outside the prison.

This summer, Salazar and President Vicente Fox ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had held Mexico's presidency and the Chiapas governorship for more than 70 years.

Both promised to make peace with the rebels. Hours after taking office Dec. 1, Fox ordered the closing of military checkpoints in Chiapas and later sent an Indian rights bill to Congress -- two other rebel demands. A day after Fox's inauguration, rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos said his fighters were ready to return to peace talks.

However, some fear the prisoner release could cause resentment among those demanding the same kind of amnesty for imprisoned paramilitaries.

Herran Salvati has said he would not grant amnesty to imprisoned paramilitaries. They include 45 people serving 35 years in prison for the 1997 massacre of rebel sympathizers in the village of Acteal, as well as 11 members of a vigilante group charged with evicting rebel supporters at gunpoint and destroying homes in the village of Yajalon on Aug. 3.

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