SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) _ Indian peasants have been evicted by police from four ranches in Chiapas state. The squatters claimed police injured 50 people with tear gas and blows from rifle butts.

Police moved in Friday to free several employees held hostage on cattle ranches near the town of Salto de Agua, 60 miles north of San Cristobal, said police Cmdr. Genaro Hernandez Flores.

Violence between peasants and ranchers could reignite fighting by the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Front, which launched an uprising last year and supports the impoverished Indians' claims to land.

Jaime Sanchez Jimenez, a spokesman for the squatters, claimed police fired rifles into the air, used tear gas and beat the peasants with rifles.

The peasants were being held at the hall of the local ranchers association, whose members aided police in the eviction. They were to be turned over to the state Judicial Police and transferred to the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Hernandez said.

Police seized several small-caliber weapons, ammunition, ski masks and red-and-yellow bandanas. Ranchers have linked the peasants to the rebels, whose troops wear similar masks.

More than 2,400 ranches and small farms have been seized by squatters since the Zapatistas launched their rebellion on Jan. 1, 1994. At least 145 people were killed in fighting until a cease-fire was called 12 days later.

The peasants say they don't have enough land to feed their families and accuse the government of protecting illegally large private holdings.

Ranchers throughout the state recently have threatened to use violence to evict the squatters. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Eraclio Zepeda urged the ranchers to work within the law to regain their property.