Three Tzeltal Indians were killed and one was wounded in a shootout sparked by a land dispute in Sitala, a city in the jungles of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the property owners' representatives said.

The incident occurred Monday at the El Vergel ranch when a group of 15 masked Indians tried to take over the 176-hectare (435-acre) property, representatives of the Diaz Victoria family told reporters.

The shootout started when the armed Tzeltals took a worker hostage, leading the other ranch workers to come to his assistance and force the Indians to flee.

Three of the armed men were killed and a ranch employee was wounded and taken to the hospital in Ocosingo.

The property owners notified state officials, who removed the bodies and opened an investigation.

The bodies were taken to the coroner's office in the colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

The Diaz Victoria family said on Dec. 31 that a group of Indians had invaded their property and occupied it for more than a month.

The state government negotiated with the Indians and got them to leave peacefully.

The Indians returned in February, but authorities prevented them from occupying the property.