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Mexico-Zapatista Negotiations Disrupted by Crowds of Rebels

By Juanita Darling
Los Angeles Times
SAN ANDRES LARRAINZAR, Mexico

Peace talks between the government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army stalled before they began Thursday because hundreds of rebel supporters were gathered in the plaza of this village in violation of security agreements established for the negotiations.

Government delegates refused to begin talks until the crowds were replaced by the civilian security forces that both sides had agreed to earlier this month.

The security measures are necessary "to assure the healthy development of the process of dialogue," stated an Interior Ministry communique.

The statement was released six hours after talks were scheduled to begin on the outdoor basketball court of this poor rural village, surroundings calculated to provide a reminder of the misery that caused a small group of Indian peasants to take up arms on New Year's Day, 1994.

Negotiations got off to a rocky start as thousands of rebel supporters were trucked here Wednesday night. Many withdrew after government officials objected to their presence, but hundreds stayed, pouring into the plaza. That was a violation of security provisions both sides had reached.

The incident showed how easily negotiations could be interrupted, despite the repeated insistence of both the government and the rebels that they are willing to talk out their differences.

The joint legislative committee organizing the peace talks between the Zapatistas and the government warned, even before the talks began, that resolving the problems behind the 16-month-long conflict could take a year or more of discussions.

"We are barely constructing the foundations of the building," Juan N. Guerra, a committee leader, said of the scheduled three days of talks aimed at creating a negotiating framework, including procedures and an agenda.

The talks that follow will take months, he predicted. If they produce agreements that require changing laws, as expected, those modifications will be subject to approval of the legislature, which recesses April 30 and does not resume sessions until September.