Former Governor Freed By Rebels,
Peace Talks to Begin Monday
By LAWRENCE KOOTNIKOFF
Associated Press Writer
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP)
- (Feb. 16, 1994) Government and
guerrilla negotiators will meet Monday to begin talks to end the peasant rebellion in
southern Mexico, the government said today.
Government peace commissioner Manuel Camacho Solis said the talks would be in the southern state of Chiapas, but he wouldn't specify where until Sunday for security reasons. The announcement followed by less than 24 hours the rebel release of Absalon Castellanos Dominguez, the former governor of the southern state of Chiapas, kidnapped by the rebels Jan. 2, a day after their uprising began.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army attacked and controlled several cities Jan. 1 to demand better treatment for Maya Indian peasants in the state plus better economic conditions. At least 107 people, mostly rebels and civilians, were killed in fighting that ended with a unilateral cease-fire called Jan. 12 by the government.
The rebels' release of Castellanos was a gesture greeted by Camacho on Wednesday as a ``firm step toward peace.'' It was his first face-to-face encounter with the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army. Castellanos, 70, returned to his ranch after being held 47 days in a remote forest hideout. He has said the rebels did not mistreat him and showed no sign of his ordeal other than a new beard.
Flanked by four hooded rebels, he walked to freedom along a dirt road in this tiny village in southern Chiapas where electricity was first introduced last year and telephones don't exist. The 300 residents applauded as the rebels shouted ``Long live the Zapatista Army!'' About 160 journalists were on hand as well as government officials.
``We have fulfilled our promise,'' shouted the rebels, carrying automatic weapons and wearing their signature ski masks and red handkerchiefs. An unidentified man in civilian dress recited a list long of complaints against Castellanos, a retired army general who commanded the Mexican army in Chiapas before serving as governor from 1982-88.
Rebels accuse him of stealing Indian land and jailing those who opposed him. Castellanos denied the charges but in a television interview broadcast late Tuesday, admitted failing to adequately address social injustices.
"I hope we will soon see peace and tranquility in Chiapas,'' Castellanos said in a brief statement after being examined by Red Cross workers.
His release was seen as a condition for peace talks. The government earlier released 38 suspected rebels and was preparing to free 32 others, according to Mexican news reports. In what may have been a similar gesture toward peace, the government announced a huge increase in spending for rural social programs.
The rebellion began New Year's Day when the previously unknown Zapatistas briefly took over several towns in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to protest mistreatment and oppression of Indian peasants, most of whom live in poverty. The fighting died down two weeks later after the government declared a unilateral cease-fire.
Castellanos, said by the rebels to be their only hostage, was kidnapped from his ranch. He planned to spend the night in his home before taking a military flight today from the Chiapas capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez to Mexico City. It was not immediately known if Castellanos would meet with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
In late January, the rebels said Castellanos had been sentenced to death but that they commuted the sentence to life of hard labor at an indigenous community to atone for his sins against Indians.
Most of the 3.2 million residents of Chiapas are Indians, many of whom speak no Spanish and live in tiny farm plots without running water or electricity. Hospitals and schools are scarce. The Zapatistas say Indians are dying of curable diseases.
The rebels take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the hero of Mexico's 1910 revolutionary. His cry of ``Land and Liberty'' mobilized thousands of peasants.
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