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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mexico protests force Fox into ceremony retreat

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Leftist protests forced President Vicente Fox to abandon plans to lead Mexico's main independence day ceremony in the capital on Friday, reducing the risk of violence over a hotly contested election.

Fox will instead give the highly charged cry of independence in the central town of Dolores Hidalgo, Interior Minister Carlos Abascal told reporters on Thursday.

The conservative Fox is targeted by leftists angry at what they say was fraud in the July 2 presidential vote, narrowly won by ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon.

The traditional ceremony, known as "el grito" (the shout) normally takes place in the capital's huge Zocalo square on the September 15 eve of independence day and culminates in the president shouting, "Viva Mexico!" to a flag-waving crowd.

But followers of losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who have occupied the plaza for six weeks had vowed a rowdy demonstration against Fox there.

"They would have booed him. They would have called him traitor and stuff like that, insulted his mother," said Lopez Obrador supporter Nicolas Lopez, 63, in the Zocalo.

Organizers had feared clashes between leftists and the presidential guard or federal police, and Mexico's Senate urged Fox to take the event elsewhere.

"The federal government accepts the Senate's request today to consider a change of venue," Abascal said.

The move by Fox was the latest easing of a dispute over the election results that gave Calderon victory by 234,000 votes out of 41 million.


Leftist protesters wound down a huge sit-in on Thursday that had crippled the center of the capital and caused traffic chaos.

Protests have died down since a court last week named Calderon, a pro-U.S. former energy minister, president-elect after rejecting Lopez Obrador's claims of massive vote-rigging.

Presidents have previously given 'el grito' outside Mexico City, but the change of plan was a retreat by Fox.

His spokesman had repeatedly insisted the president would lead the ceremony in the Zocalo, once the center of the Aztec empire and now the heart of modern Mexico.

Fox was conciliatory on Thursday.

"The federal government and the presidency will never be a cause of discord in our country. It will never promote division," he said in a speech before the announcement of the venue change.

Fox ended 71 years of single-party rule in the 2000 election. A court censured him for openly backing Calderon during the recent campaign.

Dolores Hidalgo, where national hero Miguel Hidalgo kicked off a struggle in 1810 that led to Mexico's independence from Spain, appears to be a safe venue for Fox. It is in his conservative home state of Guanajuato.

Leftist lawmakers who support Lopez Obrador seized the podium of Congress and forced Fox to abandon his state of the nation speech on September 1. He later gave the address on television.

Abascal said the Zocalo ceremony would now be held by Mexico City's leftist mayor, Alejandro Encinas, a close ally of Lopez Obrador.

Leftists will decide in coming days whether to keep up a campaign of civil resistance against Calderon, who takes office on December 1.
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