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Gunmen in Mexico fire on bishop

In an apparent escalation of conflict in Mexico's troubled Chiapas state, gunmen attacked a convoy carrying a Roman Catholic bishop who has been deeply involved in peace talks with the Zapatista rebels, the bishop's office said Wednesday.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz was unharmed, but three other church workers in the convoy were wounded, according to a communique from the bishop's office in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

The communique said the attack appeared to have been carried out by Peace and Justice, a loose-knit group associated with Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"This is very serious. It shows the extent of the deterioration in this society (in Chiapas) and the inefficiency of the authorities," said the Rev. Gonzalo Ituarte, who works with Ruiz on a peace commission. "This group has been identified for a long time."

Ruiz is Mexico's best-known bishop. A prominent advocate of Indian rights, he is one of the few figures in Mexican society who has the trust of the mostly Indian Zapatista rebels. But he is fiercely criticized by those who have accused him of helping to incite rebellion in Chiapas' poor villages.

Chiapas was the site of a 1994 uprising by the Zapatistas that left more than 145 people dead. The fighting lasted less than two weeks and was followed by peace talks with the government. But those negotiations broke down a year ago over an accord on granting Indian communities more autonomy.

While a fragile cease-fire still holds, clashes have broken out frequently between loosely organized groups that support either the Zapatistas or the governing party. Over 100 people have died in such battles in the past three years, but a figure of Ruiz's political stature has never come under fire before.

As Ruiz traveled Tuesday through the hamlet of Crucero, a Peace and Justice stronghold, gunshots rang out from behind a hill about 300 feet away, the communique said.

The car carrying Ruiz and a fellow Chiapas bishop, the Rev. Raul Vera, was not hit. But other vehicles were peppered with bullets, wounding two lay catechists and another church worker.