SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) _ A confrontation between Zapatistas and Mexican soldiers in the southern state of Chiapas has left nine people wounded, rebels and military authorities said.

The Defense Ministry said 40 people armed with sticks, machetes, rocks and knives attacked a patrol Wednesday near San Jose la Esperanza ``in a clear provocation.'' Seven soldiers and police were wounded.

The ministry said the patrol responded ``with great prudence to avoid violent acts'' and that the soldiers had opened fire ``to dissuade the aggressors.''

However, the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army said in a statement that two rebel fighters were shot and wounded when Mexican soldiers and police attacked the Lacandon Jungle community, located between the rebel stronghold of La Realidad and the hamlet of Rizo de Oro.

The statement also said soldiers beat men and women from the community.

The skirmish was the first direct confrontation since January, when Zapatista rebels exchanged blows with soldiers in the village of Aldama. It was also the first time the military had opened fire on the rebels since June 1998, when seven Zapatistas were killed in the town of Los Platanos.

The Zapatistas staged a brief armed uprising in Chiapas in January 1994, demanding greater democracy and Indian rights. Peace talks between the government and the rebels have been stalled since 1996, and clashes between rebel supporters and soldiers and paramilitary groups have been frequent since then.