Mexico's foreign ministry took note of the U.S. government's recommendation that former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo be granted immunity from a civil lawsuit over a 1997 massacre.

The Mexican government had asked Washington to make a determination on whether Zedillo, a faculty member at Yale University, can be sued in U.S. federal court for events that took place during his 1994-2000 tenure as head of state.

The law firm of Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess filed the $50 million suit almost a year ago with a federal court in Connecticut.

The plaintiffs are a dozen unnamed relatives of some of the victims of the 1997 Acteal massacre.

"This complaint is predicated on former President Zedillo's actions as President, not private conduct," State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh said in a letter to the U.S. District Court in Hartford, Connecticut.

"The government of Mexico does not believe that a U.S. law should or can grant jurisdiction to the courts of that country to hear civil suits over deeds committed outside the United States and not involving U.S. citizens," the Mexican foreign ministry said.

Immunity of heads of state before foreign courts for official acts "is based on international custom, with the aim of ensuring respect for the equal sovereignty of states," the ministry said in a statement.

On Dec. 22, 1997, a group of men toting assault rifles killed 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indians, including 15 children, as they were praying inside a church in Acteal, Chiapas state.

Lawyers for Zedillo dismiss the allegations that he played a role in the massacre as "unfounded" and "slanderous."

The massacre occurred during the period when the government was fighting the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, guerrilla group.

Tzotzil Indians from the Tzajalum, Chimix and Quextic communities had gathered in Acteal after fleeing their homes due to violence between EZLN supporters and armed members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico at the time.

The massacre led to the resignations of Government Secretary Emilio Chuayfett and Chiapas Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, both of whom were PRI members.

Some people considered Ruiz Ferro to be behind the massacre.

Many human rights groups labeled the massacre a "state crime" and accused Ruiz Ferro and Zedillo of being involved.

The lawsuit accuses the former Mexican head of state of complicity with the slaughter and an ensuing cover-up organized with former Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar.

The lawsuit contends that the Zedillo administration abandoned talks with the Zapatistas - whose armed uprising lasted only about a week - in favor of a violent crackdown after a report from a U.S. bank cited instability in Chiapas as a negative factor for the Mexican economy.

Zedillo, according to the suit, conspired with Madrazo Cuellar to hide the president's connection with a covert operation involving the use of police, soldiers and civilian paramilitaries to crush the Zapatistas.

"Compelling evidence shows that the authorities facilitated the arming of paramilitaries who carried out the killings and failed to intervene as the savage attack continued for hours," Amnesty International said in a 1998 statement on Acteal. EFE