Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Mexican farmers release police hostages

RADICAL RESPONSE Farmers and villagers attacked police and took six of them hostage after officers had tried to evict street vendors supporting farm activists


Machete-wielding farmers who clashed violently with authorities, kidnapped police officers and seized control of this town outside Mexico's capital have released all six of their hostages.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, radical community leaders in San Salvador Atenco called Red Cross officials to a small clinic near the center of town and released the six state and federal police officers they had seized hours earlier. Organizers said it was a gesture of goodwill since all of the former hostages were injured -- having been beaten and some sliced with machetes.

Home-made explosives

Inhabitants armed with homemade explosives who erected barricades of burning tires continued to block a major highway leading into town and refused to allow police or government officials in. Still, things were relatively calm before dawn yesterday.

Trouble began in Atenco -- which has a history of clashing with authorities -- early on Wednesday, when inhabitants attacked police in response to the arrest of several of their companions at a market in the nearby town of Texcoco.

A 14-year-old Atenco resident was killed during the pitched battles that happened throughout the day, but circumstances surrounding the death were unclear, said Humberto Benitez, Secretary General of the State of Mexico, which borders Mexico City on three sides.

Benitez said, as did a spokesman for the Federal Preventative Police, that a federal police agent was beaten to death. Hours later, however, Mexico state Governor Enrique Pena Nieto called television newscasts to say the officer remained hospitalized in grave condition.

Television images from helicopters overhead showed residents repeatedly punching and kicking the semiconscious officer in a beating that continued even after he had been put inside an ambulance that was trying to drive him to safety.

Mexican media reported that at least three dozen police officers were injured, though federal and state police spokesmen could not agree on an exact number. Pena Nieto told Televisa, Mexico's largest network, that as many as 50 officers were wounded, but that only about 12 sustained serious injuries.

Tear gas

Police responded to the violence by firing tear gas into the crowds and arrested 31 people, including Ignacio del Valle, a key community leader.

A photographer sustained bruises on his head and body after being clubbed by a group of police officers who were trying to keep him from taking pictures. He was not seriously injured, however.

Police officers also beat and tackled at least one cameraman from Televisa.

"We are working ... to re-establish order, peace and harmony as soon as possible," said federal Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal.

Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos said that the Zapatista Liberation Army of southern Mexico will go on red alert to support Atenco residents.

Marcos made the comments in Mexico City, where he was addressing supporters as part of his so-called "other campaign," in which he is touring the country, talking to different dissident and community groups in the run up to Mexico's July presidential election.

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