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Mexico police swarm riot town, free hostages

By Staff
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SAN SALVADOR ATENCO, Mexico, May 4 (Reuters) Over 1,000 riot police firing tear gas flooded into a town at the edge of Mexico City today to hunt for agents taken hostage in a riot sparked by flower traders that left at least one dead.

National television images showed police clad in body armor sweeping into the frequently fractious farming town of San Salvador Atenco, 24 km north of Mexico City, and hauling off bleeding protectors.

Violence exploded in the area on Wednesday when police arrested roadside traders suspected of illegally selling flowers. Dozens more were arrested later in the day.

A 14-year-old boy was killed in the rioting and some reports, denied by the government, say a police officer also lost his life.

Fifty police officers were injured, 11 seriously, state Gov Enrique Pena Nieto said, and dozens were arrested.

During the chaos, angry demonstrators cornered 11 policemen and took them hostage. The protesters released several of the men in the early hours of Thursday morning but some reports said up to six of them had not been found yet.

The police today backed up by low-flying helicopters, over-ran roadblocks set up by the demonstrators, who were demanding the release of flower sellers and leaders arrested in raids and running street battles yesterday.

The speed, size and early hour of the operation seemed to take the town by surprise, and resistance was limited to small groups throwing Molotov cocktails.

Police used strips of cloth as makeshift masks against the swirling clouds of tear gas, and stormed houses to pull out residents in a hunt for protest leaders.

Mobs of protesters burned tires on a main road and lobbed stones and gasoline bombs at some 400 policemen yesterday. Rioters kicked and stamped on two apparently unconscious policemen.

The riot was the latest outbreak of violence to hit Mexico as the country approaches a July 2 presidential election. A surge in drug-cartel bloodshed has spread to coastal resorts like Acapulco and two people were killed in April when armed police tried to break up a steelworkers strike.

Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar told reporters on Thursday the violence in Atenco was the work of a small group of people opposed to democracy and not a sign that the country was slipping into further violence.

''I can categorically assure you there is no lack of governability here'' he said.

San Salvador Atenco is known for its machete-armed peasants, who five years ago blocked President Vicente Fox's plan to build a new airport there with a standoff that lasted several days.

Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos, who headed a brief but bloody uprising in the Indian dominated southern state of Chiapas in 1994, said his guerrilla army was on red-alert following the clashes.

Leftist Marcos, who is on a tour of Mexico City, has hardened his political stance in recent days, calling for the overthrow of government and vowing to expel foreign capital from the country.

Television images on Wednesday showed some rotesters shouting pro-Zapatista slogans.

REUTERS PM PC2116

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