Mexico was at the brink of civil war last month as relations soured between the government and indigenous Zapatista rebels.

Armed, masked rebel fighters seized dozens of villages and blockaded eight major highways in the southern state of Chiapas on December 19, fuelling an economic crisis that drove the Mexican peso into a nosedive.

The Zapatistas and opposition politicians in Mexico charge that elections last August were riddled with fiaud. The Zapatista National Liberation Army had promised that unrest would return to Mexico if the elections were not clean. They had been at peace with government forces for 11 months since they launched a 12-day uprising Jan. 1, 1994. The uprising was launched as a protest against poverty, corruption and attacks on Aboriginal rights in Chiapas, whose population is largely indigenous.

After several weeks of concern that war was imminent in December, the Mexican government agreed to appoint a Roman Catholic negotiator, Samuel Ruiz, trusted by the rebels to head talks on resolving the crisis.