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ZAPATISTAS SAY SURVEY WILL HELP MAP THE FUTURE

In their latest effort to seize the public relations initiative and boost interest in their cause, Mexico's Zapatista rebels Sunday will hold a self-styled national and international poll on their future.

The polls, using every means from the Internet to more than 8,000 voting booths around Mexico, will seek answers to six questions the Zapatistas say will help them map their future steps.In his first published interview in six months, rebel leader Sub-coman-dante Marcos told La Jornada newspaper from his Chiapas jungle base that the more people who take part in the "consultation," the better it will be for democracy in Mexico.

"People have to understand that they should take part, because if they don't take part we lose, and if we lose they lose," he said. "The consultation is like a thermo-meter."

The Zapatista rebels rose up in arms on New Year's Day, 1994 in the southern state of Chiapas to demand greater democracy and respect for indigenous rights. More than 150 people died in the first days of the rebellion but there has been little fighting since.

Peace talks with the government in the Chiapas village of San Andres Larrainzar are deadlocked and the rebels have gradually lost their grip on the public imagination since a February army push drove them out of occupied villages into the depths of the Lacandon jungle.

The national poll, which is being organized by election monitoring group Civic Alliance with the help of some 40,000 volunteers, will ask four general questions and two mutually exclusive ones: Should the rebels change into a new, independent political force, or should they link up with other groups to try to form a new opposition coalition.

Marcos said the militarily weak rebels were not seeking an opinion on whether to start fighting the army again. Instead they are seeking to promote a kind of human barrier, made up of ordinary citizens, between the two sides.

The success of the consultation, he said, would consist of "ruling out having recourse to arms for both forces, leaving discussions completely in the political sphere.

"That is, after the consultation neither of the armies should be able to use their weapons: that would be a success for the consultation, for the San Andres peace talks and the whole Chiapas peace process."

Critics have said the four general questions are phrased in such a way as to invite only a positive answer. Question three, for example, asks whether "We Mexicans should carry out a deep political reform to guarantee democracy?"

Gustavo Iruegas, a member of the government negotiating team at the peace talks who recently called the rebels "insolent liars," said he and any other democratically minded Mexican would answer "Yes" to such questions.