Government soldiers pursued guerrilla leaders into the jungles of southern Mexico, sending hundreds of peasants fleeing. No new violence was reported Sunday.
A handwritten statement purportedly from the rebel directorate accused the government of “forming a circle of death around us” and called on Mexicans to “stop this genocidal war.”
But the government says it is trying to avoid confrontations, and Guatemala promised to assist the Mexican army by preventing rebels from crossing its border.
“In no way is this being treated like a war,” the Mexican Interior Ministry said in a statement.
The government has portrayed its troop movements as a police effort to enforce an arrest warrant, but military roadblocks prevented medical supplies and food from reaching impoverished Indian villages.
Human rights groups expressed concern that the army is planning a major offensive against the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army.
“We think that the army is preparing an offensive, that the soldiers are circling the Zapatistas with the intent of eliminating them,” said Roger Maldenado of the human rights group Conpaz.
A Mexican journalist in San Cristobal delivered on Sunday a communique and a letter addressed to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, both purporting to come from the rebel directorate.
It would be the first comment from the rebels since the army push began, but the authenticity of the documents could not be verified immediately.
Unlike past rebel missives, these letters were handwritten, contained numerous misspellings and were not signed by Subcomandante Marcos, the ski-masked Zapatista leader and spokesman.
“We are calling on all our Mexican brothers to stop this genocidal war that the bad government is waging against us,” said the statement, dated Saturday. “They are forming a circle of death around us.”
The communique also claimed the army had conducted aerial attacks Friday near the rebel strongholds of Morelia and La Garrucha.
The accompanying letter said the rebels are under orders to retreat and reiterated their willingness to participate in peace talks - and their support for Marcos. “We will not permit anything to happen to him,” the letter said.
There has been no communication from Marcos since Zedillo identified him Thursday as the son of a well-todo businessman from the northern city of Tampico and sent troops to arrest him and other top rebel leaders.
The Zapatistas began fighting in the southern state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, demanding rights and services for impoverished Indians there.
The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CA SAS, MEXICO