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REBEL GUNMEN MASSACRE 45 PEASANTS IN SOUTHERN MEXICAN INDIAN VILLAGE

A column of gunmen descended on an Indian village, opened fire with AK-47s and hunted down those who tried to flee, including terrified mothers with babies. In all, 45 people were killed in southern Mexico's worst explosion of violence since a leftist uprising four years ago.

Word of the massacre, which occurred midday Monday, was spread Tuesday by survivors and peasant groups, who said about 70 gunmen loyal to a local faction of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party marched through the village firing indiscriminately.

The attack came as villagers were in church, praying for an end to the violence that has festered in impoverished Chiapas state.

"We were in the church praying when he heard the shots and everyone went running in every direction," said Juan Vazquez Luna, 15, whose mother, father and four sisters were killed. Three other siblings were wounded.

Villagers fled down the mountainside toward the river, they said. Women hauled babies in shawls. Men carried toddlers by the waist. People tripped as they rushed down the hill.

The gunmen followed them, continuing to fire, witnesses said. Soon the packed earth along the river was covered in blood.

Forty-five people were killed and 11 were wounded in the massacre, according to Chiapas state Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz.

It was the deadliest attack since rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up to demand rights for Indians in January 1994, a conflict that killed 135 people.

Survivors of the massacre blamed peasants from surrounding villages loyal to President Ernesto Zedillo's ruling party, known as the PRI. Since the rebellion began, villagers have aligned themselves with, and received backing and weapons from, either the PRI-led government or the rebels.

The split has a religious component as well. Many of the government supporters are Protestants; most of the rebel supporters are Catholics who follow liberation theology, a social justice movement within the Catholic Church.

Survivors, all members of the pro-rebel Las Abejas peasant organization, said they recognized some of the attackers as members of PRI factions from nearby villages.

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