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Chiapas Indian women tell Mexican troops to depart

As dusk settled over this mountain village, 200 Mexican Indian women and their children hastened through the night to confront their adversaries at an army post a mile away.

When they arrived, a woman in a woven blouse and the trademark black ski mask of the Zapatista rebels lashed out at the colonel."We don't want to see you around here anymore," she scold-ed him, first in her Tzotzil language and then in shaky Spanish. "You only come to kill us, to rob from us, to threaten us and to do many bad things."

The woman, who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals, is among thousands of Indian women who have begun to take front-line roles in recent confrontations with police and the army.

The confrontations have come almost daily since Dec. 22, when a pro-government paramilitary group massacred 45 Zapatista sympathizers - including 21 women - in the nearby Chiapas village of Acteal.

In response, officials sent troops to keep order and disarm paramilitary gangs. But rebel supporters say the army itself has collaborated with such groups and is now trying to disarm rebel sympathizers rather than their pro-government rivals.

Time after time, soldiers entering pro-rebel communities to search for weapons face village women, often accompanied by their children and sometimes armed with machetes and sticks. Meanwhile, the men flee into the forest for fear of being detained.

The women count on soldiers being reluctant to attack them.

The tactic worked at the San Jose el Contento ranch near Ocosingo on Jan. 8, when 150 angry Tzeltal Indian women prevented the army from sending patrols up a dirt road.

But the next day in the village of Diez de Mayo, 15 Tzeltal women were treated for gashes to the head after they faced down soldiers.

"The soldier grabbed my stick and threw me into the ditch," reads the testimony of one woman. "My daughter defended me and the soldier punched her so hard he knocked her out for an hour."