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Mexicans in remote mountain town say police and troops started violence

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Mexicans in this remote mountain town dispute the government's version of a recent rebel ambush and subsequent bloody gunbattle, accusing police and troops of opening fire on innocent residents.

Supporters of the Zapatista guerrillas clashed with police and army troops Wednesday. Nine people died in one of the bloodiest incidents in the 41/2 years since the pro-Indian Zapatista rebels launched their armed uprising.But while officials said a column of 500 troops was ambushed, the few villagers who have not abandoned El Bosque told Reuters Thursday that the government troops started the violence.

The government has insisted its forces were attacked without provocation.

The dead included eight locals, some of them wearing Zapatista-style military uniforms, and one police officer, officials said.

The government at first banned foreign media from entering the town, making access impossible until late Thursday.

"Women and children were at the entrance to town trying to peacefully impede the access of the troops when the police and soldiers arrived," said one man who only identified himself as Vicente. "They were the ones who started shooting and setting off tear gas bombs."

More than 24 hours after the bloodshed, townspeople said they were still afraid of government reprisals and were reluctant to identify themselves as army helicopters buzzed overhead.

Their mistrust and accusations were typical of the polarization in Chiapas, an impoverished state on Mexico's southern border with Central America that is worlds apart from flashy Mexico City or the booming border cities of northern Mexico whose economies are hoisted by export-oriented factories.

The clash was the latest episode to add to tension in Chiapas, where peace talks hit an impasse almost two years ago but a cease-fire between Zapatista combatants and the army has held.

Local people directed their ire at the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), saying local PRI activists pointed out the Zapatista supporters, making them easy targets for the army and police.

"After they took up positions in the town they started throwing tear gas at the houses," said another man who asked not to be identified. "Then came Public Security (police) and the arrived arrived with bombs, bazookas and mortars."

About 1,500 people live here, but about half of them deserted when the shooting began, heading for the hills with .22 rifles, shotguns or pistols, local people said.

In the aftermath of the fighting, dozens of ramshackle huts appeared to have been ransacked. One was adorned with a freshly painted skull and the slogan "Long live Public Security!" The locals accused the security forces of looting.

In the town clinic where the wounded policeman died, a dried puddle of blood remained.