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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mexican Army Moves to Quell Mounting Peasant Revolt

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- The Mexican army has moved into this city in southern Mexico in force in a bid to regain control following a day of fighting at a nearby military base that raised the death toll in an armed peasant uprising to 57.

An estimated 200 Mexican soldiers patrolled the streets and warned residents to stay inside for safety.

The peasants, who call themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army and say they are fighting for indigenous rights, took over what the government now says was six cities in the southern state of Chiapas in New Year's Day raids.

Previously, officials said only four cities were occupied, but the new figures came from the Interior Ministry in a statement issued late Sunday.

Gunfire and grenade explosions from skirmishes between the military and the peasants could be heard late into the night in the mountains surrounding this colonial city.

The Mexican army said 30 people, including six soldiers and 24 peasants, died in Sunday's battles at a military base near San Cristobal and at the city of Ocosingo 56 kilometers to the east.

It also said in a statement that it was expecting further attacks on the military base called Rancho Nuevo, which is 10 kilometers east of the San Cristobal, and gave the appearance of also expecting more trouble in the city itself.

The Interior Ministry statement said 27 people, including 24 police officers and three civilians, died Saturday when the rebels moved into the six cities, which included San Cristobal, Ocosingo, Altamirano, Las Margaritas, Chanal del Carmen and Abasolo.

It also said the government had "made insistent exhortations for dialogue and a search for a peaceful end to the situation created by the armed group," but gave no indication that contact had been made with the rebels.

The Zapatistas said Saturday that they had declared war on the Mexican government for crimes against the indigenous people and called for land reforms and a new government.

"The war we are declaring is a last, but just, measure. The dictators have been applying a non-declared genocidal war against our people for many years," they said in a communique.

A rebel leader identifying himself as Comandante Marcos also said the uprising was tied to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact linking the U.S., Canada and Mexico in a free trade zone. It went into effect on New Year's Day."The North American Free Trade Agreement is the death certificate for the indigenous people of Mexico. We rose up in arms to respond to Salinas' death sentence against our people," he said, referring to the president.

Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, has been the site of many incidents involving indigenous groups in recent years. Poverty and religious and ethnic conflicts are common in the region.

The troops pulled out of San Cristobal early Sunday, leaving slogans vowing to continue their "revolution." According to the military, they moved on to Rancho Nuevo and attacked the base.

But local media reports said the military attacked the peasants when they stormed a nearby prison and freed 178 prisoners, but that could not be confirmed. The rebels are armed with pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons.