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Troops Seize Guns In Chiapas Rebels Accuse Government Of Trying To Cover Up Massacre

Leftist rebels are accusing the government of harassing rebel supporters in an effort to obscure its role in the recent slaying of 45 peasants in southern Mexico.

The military has stepped up weapons searches and other activities in the southern state of Chiapas “to cover up its responsibility in the Acteal massacre, for which we all know it is principally responsible,” the Zapatista rebels claimed in a statement. Acteal is a village in Chiapas.

The government of President Ernesto Zedillo has repeatedly denied any link to the Dec. 22 killings and has arrested 46 people, suspected members of a paramilitary death squad linked to the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The rebels released their statement late Saturday, hours after Zedillo replaced his hard-line interior secretary with Francisco Labastida Ochoa, a skilled politician who declared he would immediately seek a “decisive peace” in Chiapas. He also said he would seize weapons on all sides of the conflict.

On Sunday, the respected weekly news magazine Proceso published what it said was a Defense Department counterinsurgency plan for Chiapas developed in October 1994, about nine months after the rebels launched a short-lived rebellion.

Without disclosing how it obtained the report, the weekly said it called for the military to organize progovernment ranchers and landowners into self-defense groups to help “break the populace’s support” for the rebels.

The rebels’ support base consists of dirt-poor Indians seeking better living conditions, respect for their human rights, preservation of their culture and local political autonomy.

The government has denied organizing paramilitary groups in the region.

After the Acteal slaughter, most of whose victims were women and children, Zedillo sent more than 5,000 troops into Chiapas, adding to at least 35,000 already scattered throughout the state’s mountains and canyons.

Officials said at the time that they expected a rebel takeover of key regional cities to mark the fourth anniversary of the Zapatistas’ Jan. 1, 1994, rebellion, which claimed at least 145 lives in 12 days of fighting before a truce was reached.

On Thursday, soldiers set up dozens of checkpoints on the region’s highways, searching vehicles for weapons and seizing a small weapons cache in the pro-rebel village of San Miguel Chiptic.

Saturday, the arrival of about 150 soldiers in machine gun-mounted Humvees raised fears among villagers in La Realidad, where rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos often makes public appearances.

The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO

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