More than 5,000 indigenous Mexicans including pregnant women, sick children and the elderly have been forced to flee their homes because of a land war between rival villages, authorities said Thursday.
A 40-year-old conflict in the southern state of Chiapas between the communities of Chenalho and Chalchihuitan has escalated recently as heavily-armed gunmen torched houses and forced people to flee at gunpoint, according to Catholic priests in the area.
Armed groups have also set up roadblocks and begun harassing people crossing the disputed stretch of land between the two communities, the state government said.
Thousands of people from the Tzotzil and Tzetzal ethnic groups have fled into the surrounding mountains fearing a bloodbath.
"Illegal armed groups are creating an atmosphere of terror in the community of Chalchihuitan, causing the forced displacement of more than 5,000 people who are living in extremely precarious conditions and exposed to the elements," the local Catholic diocese said in a statement.
"More than 300 people have also been displaced from the municipality of Chenalho."
Bishop Felipe Arizmendis said the displaced families are living under plastic tarps.
The state government said it is using airlifts to bring them food, blankets and medicine.
Authorities have also deployed more than 100 soldiers to the area to keep the peace, said state secretary Juan Gomez.
The conflict flared again in October after a woman was murdered in Chalchihuitan and her body abandoned on the disputed land.
Gunmen then launched a series of raids on Chalchihuitan, while Chenalho residents dug large ditches to sever the roads between the two communities.
Authorities said they have established a "permanent dialogue" between the mayors of the two municipalities.
A court is due to rule soon on the land dispute.