updated 6/28/2005 11:16:44 PM ET 2005-06-29T03:16:44

Mexico’s Zapatista rebels suggested Tuesday they would seek to open a political front with workers, farmers and students — a decision the government interpreted as a move toward joining mainstream politics and away from armed struggle.

In a statement intended to explain the “new step” for their movement, the rebels said “we have reached a point where we cannot advance any further.”

“A new step forward in the Indian struggle is only possible if the Indian joins workers, farmers, students, teachers, office and store employees,” according to the statement, which was signed by a rebel leadership council.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said he welcomed any signs that the ski-masked Zapatistas could be ready to put down their guns, and he called on the rebels’ military commander to join him in building “the phase of integration into political life.”

“I am at your service to work toward this integration,” said Fox, who was traveling in Belize on Tuesday.

‘New step’
In a statement issued Monday from their strongholds in the mountains of Chiapas state, the group said its members had overwhelmingly approved a “new step” in its resistance to Mexico’s government.

It promised more communiques in the future to explain changes to the movement in the southern state that staged a brief anti-government revolt in January 1994. Their demands for Indian rights and autonomy made the group an icon for anti-globalization activists worldwide.

The Zapatistas “will undertake a new national and international political initiative,” said Monday’s statement, which was signed by Subcomandante Marcos, the rebel military commander Fox mentioned by name.

Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for Fox, offered assurances that the group’s history of armed rebellion would not present any legal hurdles to political activity or even a political party.

‘Red alert’
The rebels have been locked in an uneasy truce with the government since the mid-January 1994 uprising and have increasingly moved toward political rather than military confrontation.

The rebels initial intention to create a socialist government in Mexico quickly narrowed after the uprising to focus largely on Indian rights and political autonomy.

Last week, the rebels declared a “red alert,” citing fears they might be attacked while members and supporters gathered to discuss their future.

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