SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico - Hundreds of machete-wielding farmers protesting
the government's plan to take their land for a new airport outside Mexico City
were on alert for a showdown with police Friday night, a day after taking seven
hostages during clashes that left 30 injured.
With more than 300 riot police stationed in trucks outside the town, a tense calm reigned in San Salvador Atenco, which lies beyond Mexico City's garbage dump about 18 miles outside of the capital.
Masked men wielding machetes, Molotov cocktails, sticks and stones patrolled the streets, ready to fight if the police stormed an auditorium where the hostages were being held.
A resident from San Salvador Atenco sleeps with her machete in hand as people
guard their neighborhood from a possible break in by the federal police Friday,
July 12, 2002, in state of Mexico. Farmers desperate to keep the government from
seizing their land for a new Mexico City airport threatened Friday to spark uprisings
across the country unless police free fellow protesters arrested during an earlier
confrontation with police. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mexico State authorities said they had freed three out of 15 farmers arrested in the clashes.
In a news conference late Friday night, the farmers demanded the government annul a decree expropriating their land as a key condition for releasing the hostages and said they would only negotiate with federal, rather than state, authorities.
Some farmers had earlier threatened to kill the hostages, who include local government officials, unless police free two of their leaders and 13 others arrested in violence on Thursday.
But protest leader David Pajaro said the hostages would not be harmed.
"It's up to the government to solve this situation," he said. He said his group was in negotiations with the government but refused to give details.
The crowd was preparing to march on the capital Friday afternoon, but the biggest activity in town was the unloading of two Coca-Cola trucks the farmers hijacked. The crowd guzzled soft drinks and saved the bottles to make Molotov cocktails.
The hostages, with their hands tied behind their backs, were allowed to talk to reporters and said they were unharmed.
PATIENCE RUNNING OUT
But state officials warned their patience was running out.
"Tolerance and prudence have their limits. They have committed crimes, they have kidnapped people," said Manuel Cadena, interior minister in Mexico State, which circles the capital city and is home to the international airport project.
The federal government announced in October it would expropriate more than 10,000 acres of land to build the new international airport, sparking protests by local farmers.
Residents of San Salvador Atenco and other nearby villages oppose the new airport because they will lose their land. The government has offered compensation but farmers say they will not sell their land at any price.
Transport and Communications Minister Pedro Cerisola on Friday said there was no question the government would budge from its plans to build the new airport in the area.
Protests against the airport turned violent Thursday with clashes in San Salvador Atenco and the nearby town of Santa Catarina.
Thirty people were reported injured, including several police. At least one police officer was attacked with a machete and another two seriously injured.
Farmers used cars and trucks to block a major highway and other roads into the area and torched several vehicles, including at least three police cars Thursday.
Friday the protests were calmer.
"We are not going to give up this battle. We will go on, come what may," said one protester who did not give her name.
The proposed six-runway, $2 billion airport is the biggest public works project to be announced by the government of President Vicente Fox since it took office in December 2000.
Mexico City's current airport has only two main runways and cannot be expanded
because it lies in a busy urban area.
©2002 Reuters Ltd