On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup
By Gwladys Fouche

SETERMOEN/KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) – Under a soft winter sun in northern Norway, U.S. Marines train in the ice and snow as they learn how to fight in the freezing cold.

“Which country is to the northeast?” Staff Sergeant Daniel Croak bellows at a group of 20 soldiers in camouflaged combat jackets and white trousers in a pine forest near the town of Setermoen.

“Russia!” they shout back.

The troops are part of a contingent of 650 Marines staging a recent joint military exercise with 3,000 soldiers from NATO-member Norway at a time when both NATO and Russia have increased their military presence in the Arctic.

A few hundred kilometers from Setermoen, Russia is modernizing its forces on the Kola Peninsula, home to its Northern Fleet. Russia has also carried out maneuvers in recent weeks, staging a major submarine exercise in the North Atlantic, according to intelligence sources cited by Norwegian media.

“Do not use your GPSes. They may be jammed,” Croak barks to the Marines, a warning stemming from NATO accusations – denied by Russia – that Moscow has in the past jammed GPS systems in Norway.

The rising tension is unsettling many Norwegians, not least in the town of Kirkenes, which for three decades has been trying to foster cooperation with Russia.

Residents can cross the nearby border quickly with a visa-free permit. Many go to the nearby Russian town of Nikel to buy petrol because it is much cheaper there, and street signs use both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

“I don’t like it that they build up the military on both sides of the border. We don’t want rising tensions,” said Eirik Wikan, co-owner of the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes, which gets two-thirds of its revenues from repairing Russian vessels.

“Here in the north, we work together to reduce tensions … We are trying not to be part of them.”

“A RUSSIAN TOWN IN NORWAY”

About a third of the company’s 180 employees are Russian, 22 of whom work in the Russian port city of Murmansk.

Nikolai Chagin, a mechanic from the Russian town of Severodvinsk, has worked at the shipyard in Kirkenes since 2006.

“I don’t have those problems I used to have in Russia before: I have a good job, a normal salary,” he said.

About 10% of Kirkenes residents are now from the Kola Peninsula.

Kirkenes’ Samovar theater company performs in both Norway and Russia, and has Russian and Norwegians employees. Russian choreographer Nikolai Shchetnev feels at home and is thinking of applying for dual nationality.

“Kirkenes is a Russian town in Norway,” said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of Soer-Varanger municipality which includes Kirkenes.

He said he would not welcome more tanks on the border though he saw Norway’s NATO membership as “a guarantee that I can do my job.”

Russia denies responsibility for the rise in tensions. It blames the recent basing of U.S. Marines in Norway, which it sees as a security challenge.

But Norway’s worries grew after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then staged Arctic military exercises including maritime maneuvers with ballistic missile-capable vessels present.

“These were clear messages from Moscow,” said Lieutenant-General Rune Jakobsen, Commander of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters — the Norwegian Armed Forces operational command center. “Do not be part of (NATO’s) ballistic-missile defense.”

Despite the tensions, he says Russian forces are behaving less aggressively on the frontier with Norway than in some other border zones between Russia and NATO, such as the Baltic Sea.

In efforts to build trust, Jakobsen has in recent weeks had talks with the regional head of Russia’s FSB security service in the Kola Peninsula, and met the new head of the Northern Fleet, Alexander Moiseyev, in Kirkenes.

“As a small nation neighboring a superpower, you have to strike the right balance between deterrence and reassurance,” Jakobsen said.

But the military exercises are also important for Norway.

“Working together is what makes it possible to fight together, if we have to,” said Brigadier Lars Lervik, commander of the Northern Brigade based in Setermoen.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media
By Nevzat Devranoglu and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army troops clashed with Turkish forces near the border town of Ras al Ain on Wednesday, Syrian state media reported, as Ankara said it reserved the right to launch another cross-border offensive against Kurdish YPG militia.

The state media gave no details but Turkish-backed rebels said similar, intermittent clashes had occurred in recent days with Syrian troops south of the town, which Turkey seized from Syrian Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.

The report underscores the risk that violence in northeast Syria could rekindle after Ankara and Moscow struck a deal a week ago in which Russia agreed to move the YPG at least 30 km (18.64 miles) south of the border by late on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, Syrian troops have with the agreement of Kurdish forces headed north to take up positions in a region Damascus has not controlled since early on in the country’s eight-and-a-half-year-old war.

In Ankara, President Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK Party that Turkey has information the YPG has not completed its pull-out, despite assurances from Russia that they had left ahead of the deal’s deadline.

“Even though the information in our hands suggests this has not been succeeded in a full sense, we will give our response to them after our field assessments,” he said, adding Turkey reserved the right to return to military operations against the YPG in the area.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its links to Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey, and aims establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria cleared of the YPG.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought for years alongside U.S. forces to shatter the declared “caliphate” of Islamic State militants that spanned a swathe of northern and eastern Syria.

Turkish-backed forces crossed the border into northeast Syria on Oct. 9 to attack the YPG after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces there a few days earlier, drawing international condemnation of Ankara.

Trump’s decision has been condemned in Washington by Democrats and his fellow Republicans alike for abandoning Kurdish fighters who helped rout Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted decisively to sanction Turkey, a NATO ally.

Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6.2 miles) inside northern Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4.3 miles).

“If we see that the members of the terrorist organization have not been moved out of the 30 km, or if attacks continue, no matter from where, we reserve our right to carry out our own operation,” Erdogan said.

On Tuesday, the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had captured an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers near Tel Hawa, in the countryside around Ras al Ain. A spokesman for the rebels said that the YPG had not fully withdrawn from the border area and that a new round of clashes were expected.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

The U.S. House voted 403-16 for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its offensive in Syria.

In Geneva, Assad’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the Syrian opposition demanded justice at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation, political reforms and free and fair elections as a basis for a lasting peace.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area
By Ece Toksabay and Jonathan Spicer

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Kurdish YPG forces have not fully withdrawn from a strip of northeastern Syria under a Russia-brokered accord that is about to expire, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Monday, as Ankara prepared to discuss its next steps with Moscow.

Turkey began a military offensive in northeastern Syria  targeting the YPG forces on Oct. 9 after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the area, setting off a regional power shift that analysts say benefits Moscow and Damascus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Russian delegation was headed to Turkey to discuss joint patrols that could begin as soon as Tuesday.

If the YPG does not fulfill the agreement to pull back more than 30 km (18 miles) from Turkey’s border, Turkish-led forces will “clear these terrorists from here”, he said.

“There are those who have withdrawn. (Syrian) regime elements are confirming this, Russia is confirming this as well. But it is not possible to say all of them have withdrawn,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

Ankara views the YPG as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the YPG, have been a important ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State militants.

On Sunday, the SDF said it had agreed to withdraw from the 30-km border region it had controlled until the U.S. troops pulled out. Russia has moved military personnel and vehicles into the region and has said the peace plan is on track.

Under the deal agreed on Oct. 22 between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syrian border guards and Russian military police are supposed to clear the region of YPG fighters over a six-day period that ends late on Tuesday.

Turkish and Russian forces are then meant to start patrolling a section of the Turkish-Syrian border that runs 10 km deep into Syria.

The deal means President Bashar al-Assad’s forces moving back to parts of the northern border with Turkey for the first time in years due to the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. (For an interactive map see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2M5FcGH)

“Now, a Russian military delegation is coming (to Turkey),” Cavusoglu said. “Our friends will discuss both the latest situation on the issue of withdrawal and at the end of 150 hours (on Tuesday)… how will the patrols be, what we will do together, what steps we will take.”

RUSSIA ‘GATE KEEPER’

The joint patrols are to run from the Euphrates River east to the Iraq border, except for the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, covering a portion of the so-called “safe zone” Turkey originally said it would oversee.

With Ankara and Damascus locked in conflict in Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib region in the northwest, there could be further risks as Syrian government forces and border guards head to the northeast under the Russia-brokered deal.

On Sunday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported clashes between the Syrian army and Turkish forces near Ras al-Ain, a town on the Turkish border. Turkey has not confirmed those clashes.

“Much of the deal is about coordination but Turkey and Syria are still fighting it out in Idlib, so it’s another potential risk to manage,” said Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Turkey has access to northern Syria but Russia has limited (Turkish) penetration under the deal,” she added. “So Putin is the gatekeeper and sole decision-maker there, and is also in a position to dictate Syria’s pending constitutional process.”

A committee tasked with mapping out Syria’s postwar political arrangements is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu will meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts in the Swiss city on Tuesday ahead of that meeting, the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen,

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Mexico sends in elite troops to patrol city after cartel battle

Mexico sends in elite troops to patrol city after cartel battle
By David Alire Garcia

CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico sent in special forces troops on Monday to patrol a northern city in the wake of a cartel assault that freed Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s son in a hail of bullets, and also won a U.S. promise to help stop gun-smuggling at their shared border.

More than 400 soldiers turned up in Culiacan over the weekend after gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel briefly took control of the city and forced security forces to free the drug lord’s son from a botched arrest attempt last week.

“We are going to protect the citizens, that is our mission,” said General Carlos Ramon Carrillo de Villar, who oversaw formations of soldiers marching at a media event. “We are fighting insecurity.”

The convoys of army trucks with mounted machine guns rumbling through Culiacan’s streets were meant to instill confidence. However, a national poll on Monday showed two thirds of respondents believe drug lords and mobsters are more powerful than the government after the gunbattles last week that forced an army retreat.

Sinaloa public safety director Cristobal Castaneda told news anchor Joaquin Lopez Doriga that 13 people were killed during the disturbances that ran late into Thursday night.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has insisted the decision to release Ovidio Guzman was the only way to save lives after cartel henchmen erected roadblocks, torched trucks and opened fire with heavy, military-style weapons.

After a telephone call with U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend, Mexican Cabinet ministers met U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau to ask for help stemming the flow of weapons bought legally in the United States and sold to cartels south of the border.

“We both agreed to move quickly to share information and deliver specific results,” the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said on Twitter, calling it Operation Frozen. “The commitment made by Mexico and the United States will strengthen capacities to address and reduce one of the causes of violence.”

The Mexican government said earlier in a statement the United States had promised efforts to clamp down on the illegal trade, which is believed to be the source of most firearms in the hands of Mexican criminals.

“Arms trafficking is a significant problem and one the United States is addressing with renewed focus in Mexico,” a State Department official said in response to a question from Reuters.

ILLEGAL WEAPONS

Videos of the attacks in Culiacan last week showed cartel soldiers firing armor-piercing .50 caliber rifles and at least one truck mounted with a heavy machine gun – weaponry that is not available by legal means in Mexico.

Lopez Obrador has faced heavy criticism for the handling of the raid, which critics say looked like a capitulation to criminals and risked encouraging cartels to use more force to resist arrests.

The president has defended his policy of trying to dial down clashes with drug cartels to reduce murder rates.

Many people could have been killed had security forces attempted to hold Guzman against the cartel foot soldiers, Lopez Obrador told a regular news conference.

“Not just the criminals, who are also human beings, the soldiers, who we must protect,” he said, “but (also) civilians.”

“I always have great belief in the wisdom of the people, and I know that the majority of Mexicans supported the government’s decision,” the veteran leftist said.

Homicide data released on Sunday offered some hope for the strategy, showing murders fell in September for the third straight month.

Mexican authorities opened some 2,403 murder investigations, in the month, a decline of 7% from the same month in 2018 and the lowest monthly total since April, according to government figures. The months of July through September were the three most violent in 2018.

Even so, the number of murders remains on track to surpass last year’s record total of 29,000.

One poll released on Monday showed opinion was split over the operation in Culiacan. A survey by newspaper Reforma said 49% disagreed with the release of the younger Guzman after his brief arrest by military police versus 45% who backed it.

A separate survey by polling firm GCE put the numbers at 54%-34% against letting him go. Both surveyed 400 people.

The GCE poll showed 63.5% of respondents believed drug traffickers were more powerful than the government.

More than three-quarters in the GCE poll believed the release of Guzman would encourage gangs to continue their operations, while nearly seven out of 10 in the Reforma survey said organized crime was strengthened by what had happened.

(For a graphic on ‘Murders in Mexico’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2qqSqoW)

(For a graphic on ‘Bungled arrest’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/32sdppv)

(Additional reporting by David Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Tom Brown and Paul Tait)

As Hong Kong braces for protests, Chinese paramilitary holds drills across border

Chinese soldiers walk in formation on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen across the bay from Hong Kong, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong braced on Thursday for more mass demonstrations through the weekend, as China again warned against foreign interference in the city’s escalating crisis and as mainland paramilitary forces conducted exercises just across the border.

Western governments, including the United States, have stepped up calls for restraint, following ugly and chaotic scenes at the city’s airport this week, which forced the cancellation of nearly 1,000 flights and saw protesters set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathizers.

Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The airport, one of the world’s busiest, was returning to normal but under tight security after thousands of protesters had jammed its halls on Monday and Tuesday nights, part of a protest movement Beijing has likened to terrorism.

Across a bridge linking Hong Kong’s rural hinterland with the booming mainland city of Shenzhen, hundreds of members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police conducted exercises at a sports complex in what was widely seen as a warning to protesters in Hong Kong.

The police could be seen carrying out crowd-control exercises, and more than 100 dark-painted paramilitary vehicles filled the stadium’s parking lots.

Chinese state media had first reported on the exercises on Monday, prompting U.S. concerns they could be used to break up the protests. However, several western and Asian diplomats in Hong Kong told Reuters Beijing has little appetite for putting the PAP or the People’s Liberation Army onto Hong Kong’s streets.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, and police tactics have been toughening.

The protests represent the biggest populist challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012 and show no immediate signs of abating.

Late on Wednesday night, police and protesters faced off again on the streets of the financial hub, with riot officers quickly firing tear gas.

Seventeen people were arrested on Wednesday, bringing the total detained since June to 748, police told a news conference, adding that police stations have been surrounded and attacked 76 times during the crisis.

TRUMP AND TRADE DEAL

U.S. President Donald Trump tied a U.S.-China trade deal to Beijing resolving the unrest “humanely”, and suggested he was willing to meet Xi to discuss the crisis.

“I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi (Jinping) wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Trump said on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned over reports that Chinese police forces were gathering near the border with Hong Kong and urged the city’s government to respect freedom of speech.

It also issued a travel advisory urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution in Hong Kong. China has frequently warned against what it regards as outside interference in an internal issue.

Other foreign governments urged calm. France called on city officials to renew talks with activists, while Canada said China should handle the protests with tact.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized million-strong marches in June, has scheduled another protest for Sunday.

The protesters have five demands, including the complete withdrawal of a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in mainland Chinese courts.

Opposition to the extradition bill has developed into wider concerns about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

RECESSION FEARS

It was not yet clear whether the airport clashes had eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, despite adding to the city’s faltering economy.

The protests could push Hong Kong into a recession, research firm Capital Economics said, and risked “an even worse outcome if a further escalation triggers capital flight”.

Hong Kong’s property market, one of the world’s most expensive, would be hit hard in that scenario, it added.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan unveiled a series of measures worth HK$19.1 billion ($2.44 billion) on Thursday to tackle economic headwinds, but he said it was not related to political pressure from the protests.

Business and citizens’ groups have been posting full-page newspaper advertisements that denounce the violence and back Hong Kong’s government.

The head of Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment, Lui Che-woo, urged talks to restore harmony. The protests have affected the neighboring Chinese territory of Macau, with some visitors avoiding the world’s biggest gambling hub amid transport disruptions and safety concerns.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kevin Liu and Twinnie Siu in HONG KONG, David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON, Mathieu Rosemain in PARIS, and David Ljunggren in OTTAWA; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Pentagon approves additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border

A member of the Texas National Guard watches the Mexico-U.S. border from an outpost along the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had approved a request to send an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard and 1,100 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico, the latest deployment in support of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Major Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer had approved the additional troops on Tuesday night, and they would be assisting with tasks like logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There are currently about 4,500 active duty and National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

U.S. border patrol faces probe; White House bashes asylum ruling

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand at attention during a 'Border Safety Initiative' media event at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into reports that border patrol agents have been posting offensive anti-immigrant comments and threats against lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

The move was announced amid mounting criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, with lawmakers and government investigators warning of dangerous conditions in migrant detention centers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing and inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” acting DHS head Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday, calling the reported comments “completely unacceptable.”

He said any employee found to have “compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”

The Facebook posts, first reported by the non-profit news site ProPublica included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit content referring to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was highly critical of the detention facilities after a tour this week.

The White House also criticized a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle who on Tuesday blocked an administration move to keep thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases.

“The district court’s injunction is at war with the rule of law,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The decision only incentivizes smugglers and traffickers, which will lead to the further overwhelming of our immigration system by illegal aliens.”

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups sued the government in April after Attorney General William Barr concluded that asylum seekers who entered the country illegally were not eligible for bond.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman on Tuesday ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to bond hearings.

MIGRATION FLOWS

The record surge of mostly Central American families at the U.S. southwestern border has begun to ease after tougher enforcement efforts in Mexico, although the situation remains dire, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

The U.S. government’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said migrant-holding centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were dangerously overcrowded, publishing graphic pictures of cells holding twice as many people as they were built for.

Mexico’s government, citing unpublished U.S. data, said migrant arrests at the border fell 30% in June from the previous month after it started a migration crackdown as part of a deal with the United States to avoid possible trade tariffs.

The Mexican government said it was now busing home dozens of Central American migrants from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed under a U.S. policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

“Mexico’s effort to control the flow of migrants appears to have broken a growing trend,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

After migrant arrests reached a 13-year monthly high in May, immigration has arguably become the biggest issue for President Donald Trump and the Democratic contenders vying for the chance to face him in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if he wins the White House, his campaign said on Tuesday.

Presidential hopeful Julian Castro last week proposed decriminalizing border crossings as a step toward freeing up federal resources and eliminating thousands of cases clogging criminal courts – an initiative favored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Trump, meanwhile, looked to stir up support for his policies, promising immigration raids after the July 4 U.S. holiday to arrest migrants with deportation orders.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Diego Ore and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Jonathan Allen in New York and David Alexander and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Andrew Hay and Paul Simao; Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Trott)

Mexico says it will finish National Guard roll-out to stem migration this week

FILE PHOTO - Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a session with senators and lawmakers at the Senate building in Mexico City, Mexico June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico will complete deployment of National Guard forces on its southern border with Guatemala this week as part of a new immigration control plan agreed with Washington, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard’said on Monday.

“The deployment of the National Guard ordered, with support from the Ministry of Defense and the Navy, will be completed this week,” Ebrard said at a news conference.

Mexico is stepping up efforts to cut the flow of mostly Central American migrants toward the U.S. border under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to hit Mexican goods with tariffs if it did not increase immigration control efforts.

Mexico made a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally.

Mexico has pledged to send 6,000 National Guard members along its border with Guatemala under the deal.

That deployment has been patchy so far. A Reuters reporter near the border this weekend saw a handful of officials wearing National Guard insignia and spoke to other security personnel who said they were part of the guard.

There has been a jump in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, angering Trump, who has made reducing illegal immigration one of his signature policy pledges as he heads into his campaign to win a second four-year term in November 2020.

Most of those caught attempting to enter the United States are people fleeing poverty and violence in the troubled Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Trott)

Trump vows rapid, high tariffs on Mexico unless illegal immigration ends

FILE PHOTO: Joe Alvarado, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agriculture Specialist, checks imported broccoli from Mexico at the Pharr Port of Entry in Pharr, Texas, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Steve Holland and Frank Jack Daniel

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, responding to a surge of illegal immigrants across the southern border, vowed on Thursday to impose a tariff on all goods coming from Mexico, starting at 5% and ratcheting much higher until the flow of people ceases.

Trump’s move dramatically escalates his battle to control a wave of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, including many Central American families fleeing poverty and violence, that has swelled alongside his promises to make it harder to get U.S. refuge and his efforts to build a wall on the Mexican border.

The announcement rattled investors who feared that worsening trade friction could hurt the global economy. The Mexican peso, U.S. stock index futures and Asian stock markets tumbled on the news, including the shares of Japanese automakers who ship cars from Mexico to the United States.

The president’s decision, announced on Twitter and in a subsequent statement, was a direct challenge to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and took the Mexican government by surprise on a day when it had started a formal process to ratify a trade deal with the United States and Canada (USMCA).

It raised the risk of devastating economic relations with the biggest U.S. trade partner for goods. Mexico, heavily dependent on cross-border trade, rose to that ranking as a result of Trump’s trade war with China.

The measures against Mexico open up a new front on trade and if implemented are bound to trigger retaliation that would hit heartland, Trump-supporting farming and industrial states.

Higher tariffs will start at 5% on June 10 and increase monthly up to 25% on Oct. 1, unless Mexico takes immediate action, he said.

“If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the tariffs will be removed,” Trump said.

Lopez Obrador responded in a letter he posted on Twitter, calling Trump’s policy of America First “a fallacy” and accusing him of turning the United States into a “ghetto,” that stigmatized and mistreated migrants.

“President Trump, social problems are not resolved with taxes or coercive measures,” he wrote, adding that a delegation led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard would travel to Washington on Friday. He did not threaten to retaliate, saying he wanted to avoid confrontation.

Lopez Obrador pushed back against Trump’s assertion that Mexico let immigration happen through “passive cooperation,” saying: “you know we are fulfilling our responsibility to stop (migrants) moving through our country, as much as possible and without violating human rights.”

Determined to avoid a break down in Mexico’s most important bilateral relationship, since Trump threatened to close the world’s busiest land border over the migrant surge, Lopez Obrador’s government has drastically tightened controls on the movement of migrants, detaining and deporting thousands in recent months, while calling for U.S. aid to tackle root causes.

“We’re in a good moment building a good relationship (with the United States) and this comes like a cold shower,” said Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, Jesus Seade, who had been in Mexico’s Senate delivering the USMCA trade deal for ratification shortly before the news broke.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang expressed sympathy with Mexico.

“The United States has repeatedly taken trade bullying action. China is not the only victim,” Geng told reporters.

Cross border trade between Mexico and the United States: https://tmsnrt.rs/2V59n2R

SIDING WITH HAWKS

Despite Trump’s assertion that Mexico could easily end Central American immigration, its relatively small security forces, also struggling with a record level of gang violence and homicide, are having a hard time controlling the flows.

In the biggest migrant surge on the U.S-Mexican border in a decade, U.S. officials say 80,000 people are being held in custody with an average of 4,500 mostly Central American migrants arriving daily, overwhelming the ability of border patrol officials to handle them. A senior White House official said Trump was particularly concerned that U.S. border agents apprehended a group of 1,036 migrants as they illegally crossed the border from Mexico on Wednesday. Officials said it was the largest single group since October. Before unveiling the tariff threat, Trump posted a video purporting to be of the crossing on his Twitter feed.

A source close to Trump said there had been a debate inside the White House over whether to go forward with the new policy, with immigration hawks fighting for it and others urging a more diplomatic approach. Trump sided with the hawks.

“The last thing he wants is to look weak,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump’s directive also spelled the potential for chaos for his efforts to get the U.S. Congress to approve the USMCA deal, which he negotiated as a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, which shares a 370-mile (595-km) border with Mexico, said on Twitter that he spoke to the White House and it was time for Congress to act on border security and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“Everyone knows I am opposed to tariffs and deeply value Arizona’s relationship with Mexico. I prioritize national security and a solution to our humanitarian crisis at the border above commerce,” he said on Twitter.

Trump said he was acting under the powers granted to him by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He campaigned for election in 2016 on a vow to crack down on immigration.

Jaime Serra, Mexico’s former trade minister who negotiated the original NAFTA, told Reuters the announcement was unacceptable and “in total violation of NAFTA.” Another negotiator said Trump risked violating World Trade Organization rules.

WHITE HOUSE WANTS ACTION ‘TONIGHT’

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, asked in a conference call with reporters which products from Mexico could be affected by the tariffs, said: “All of them.”

Mulvaney added, “We are interested in seeing the Mexican government act tonight, tomorrow.”

Shares in Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co and Honda Motor Co all fell around 3% or more, while Mazda Motor Co fell nearly 7%. All four operate vehicle assembly plants in Mexico.

“Mexico is the U.S.’s largest trading partner and a flare-up in trade tensions was definitely not on the market radar,” said Sean Callow, a senior currency analyst at Westpac.

The benchmark S&P 500 e-mini futures dropped 0.82% to the lowest the contract has traded since early March. Investors scooped up safe assets, driving the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note to 2.18%, the lowest since September 2017.

The dollar surged more than 2.5 percent against the Mexican peso.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Eric Beech and Mohammed Zargham; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York,Noe Torres and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City, and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)