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"Mexican Farmers Hold off Police in Airport Battle"

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Mexican Farmers Hold off Police in Airport Battle
By Elizabeth Fullerton

SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico (Reuters) - Hundreds of irate farmers armed with
machetes and gasoline bombs and holding about 10 hostages extended a protest
for a fourth day against plans to build a new international airport outside
Mexico City.

Men and women, weary but defiant, gathered Sunday in the streets of San
Salvador ( news - web sites) Atenco, about 18 miles outside of Mexico City,
prepared for a fight if hundreds of police ringing the town tried to enter
to rescue the hostages.

Early Sunday federal and state authorities were holed up in the capital
seeking a solution to end the four-day standoff, an official from Mexico
state told Reuters.

"The situation is calm, the army is in the area," he said.

The standoff began Thursday when farmers protesting the expropriation of
their land clashed with police and took seven people, including government
officials, hostage in street battles that left 30 injured, three seriously.

Protesters are demanding the government annul a decree taking their land to
build an international airport and free all 12 protesters still in detention
as a prerequisite for the release of the hostages.

Saturday protesters captured three men claiming to be reporters from a
Mexico City daily and a fourth person, all said by the protesters to be
government spies. Yet protest leader David Pajaro denied more hostages had
been taken.

Local government and police officials were unable to confirm or deny the
reports because farmers' trucks and trailers have blocked the roads leading
into the town and only journalists and residents were allowed to enter.

Mexico state authorities Saturday said no more protesters would be released
and that legal action had begun against nine of the 12 remaining in
detention. Authorities late Friday freed three of the 15 arrested farmers.

The pro-business government of President Vicente Fox ( news - web sites) has
ruled out any change to its plans to build the $2 billion, six-runway
airport in the area.

Local farmers have been offered around 65 cents per square yard for
nonirrigated land they have farmed for generations, according to the
government's decree.


Makeshift cardboard shacks lined the main thoroughfare where protesters
spent the night sheltered from heavy rain.

Men wearing ski masks and on bicycles patrolled the town streets for any
sign of intervention from around 1,000 police and soldiers stationed on
highways outside the town.

Some radical protesters have threatened to kill hostages, who are being held
in the town auditorium, and to blow up gas pipelines in the town if their
demands are not met.

The government has said it does not want to resolve the situation with force
but both protesters and local officials accused each other of being
unwilling to negotiate.

The protesters, who have been joined by leftist activists including student
leaders, have said they will only engage in dialogue with federal, and not
state, authorities.

The farmers have proposed the talks should be mediated by human rights
defenders such as former San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who
negotiated with Zapatista rebels in southern Chiapas state, or Gen. Jose
Francisco Gallardo, who was released this year after more than eight years
in prison.

The government announced in October it would expropriate more than 10,000
acres of land to build the new airport, the biggest public works project to
be announced since Fox took office in December 2000.

The existing Mexico City airport, which has two runways, cannot be extended
as it is surrounded by residential areas and is reaching saturation point,
according to officials.

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