Wednesday, November 15, 2006

October 1, 2006: Helicopters hover over Mexico's protest-torn Oaxaca, sparking rumors troops may move in

Protesters fortified street barricades and readied gasoline bombs Sunday as navy helicopters buzzed over this southern Mexican city for a second straight day, sparking rampant rumors that federal forces were planning to retake the area.

But President Vicente Fox's top Cabinet member, Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal, insisted the helicopters and military plane seen during the weekend were running routine supply runs that had nothing to do with the more than four months of unrest gripping this usually charming colonial city.

His comments came after national news media gave heavy coverage to the flyovers.

A headline in the Mexico City daily Milenio proclaimed, "Preparations for war in Oaxaca," while Mexico City's El Universal newspaper reported that helicopters, planes and 15 troop trucks had assembled in Huatulco, a Pacific tourist getaway and military hub a short flight but a long and difficult drive from Oaxaca city.

An official who answered the phone at the Defense Department in Mexico City on Sunday said he had no details about the flyovers or the reported buildup of forces in Huatulco.

Protesters responded to the flights by detonating hundreds of powerful firecrackers, which shook streets and historic buildings and further frayed nerves. Reinforcing barricades with bags of cement and tree trunks, they vowed to beat back any police and soldiers who moved on the city.

Streets were largely deserted on Sunday. Elsa Siguenza, a 73-year-old who ventured from her home to watch a helicopter speed by, said she hopes federal troops move in.

"Of course it's scary to see helicopters," she said. "But we need peace."

Oaxaca normally attracts tourists the world over because of its exotic cuisine, colorful culture and nearby Pre-Hispanic ruins.

But in May, tens of thousands of teachers seized the capital's leafy central plaza to demand wage increases.

The following month, Gov. Ulises Ruiz sent police to attempt to retake the heart of the city. Since then, thousands of leftists, students and anarchists have joined striking teachers, building street barricades, burning buses and taking over radio and television stations.

They demand that Ruiz resign, alleging that he rigged the 2004 election and uses paramilitary gangs to attack dissidents.

At least two people have been shot to death and dozens more injured in clashes between protesters and police. At night, protesters burn tires and stop and search vehicles for plainclothes state agents they say are sent to attack them.

Abascal has personally overseen negotiations to end the standoff, but the federal government has said it will not force Ruiz to resign. Protesters maintain their demand that he leave office.

On Friday, Abascal indicated the situation was nearing a breaking point, saying "everything has its limit and the limit is close."

"It is urgent that (the protesters) stop kidnapping the heart of Oaxaca and its inhabitants," Abascal said.

Meanwhile, the city continues to slide toward chaos. Before dawn on Sunday, a man suspected of driving drunk crashed through a number of street barricades. Protesters hurled dozens of rocks at his vehicle and punched out all four tires. They detained him for hours before turning him over to authorities.

Nearby, gunshots could be heard, though their origin was unknown.

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