Explainer: How Trump has sealed off the United States during coronavirus outbreak

By Mica Rosenberg and Ted Hesson

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has taken drastic steps to curb the entry of foreigners into the United States since his administration declared a public health emergency over the new coronavirus outbreak.

Here are some of the most significant additional immigration changes the U.S. government has made in response to the pandemic.

CLOSING THE BORDERS

The United States, Canada and Mexico closed their shared borders to tourist and recreational travel in late March to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The closures have since been extended until May 21.

At the same time, the Trump administration implemented new rules that allow U.S. border officials to swiftly deport migrants who attempt to cross into the country illegally, bypassing standard legal processes.

More than 10,000 migrants have been expelled under the new border rules, including more than 500 children, according to preliminary data obtained by Reuters. From April 2 to April 10, 70% of those “expelled” under the new rules were Mexican, a quarter were from Central American and the rest from other countries, the data showed.

Deportation flights of immigrants who have been arrested in the United States are continuing even as some countries are expressing concern that migrants who have been held in U.S. detention centers are being sent back to their home countries infected with the virus. U.S. immigration officials plan to start testing deportees for the virus, a U.S. official told Reuters.

SHUTTERING IMMIGRATION COURTS

The U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts as part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has extended the cancellation of all hearings for migrants not in detention until May 15, 2020.

Another controversial program put in place by the administration last year, known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” has sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for court hearings. But those proceedings have been put on hold through at least May 1.

SUSPENDING VISA PROCESSING

The United States suspended all routine visa services in most countries worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak on March 18, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The State Department said at the time that embassies would resume the services as soon as possible but gave no end date.

That same day, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was temporarily halting all routine in-person services through at least May 3, and canceled all asylum interviews and naturalization oath ceremonies for new citizens.

Some experts have said the pause on naturalizations could affect people who had hoped to vote the first time as U.S. citizens in November’s presidential election.

HALTING REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT

The U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration said in mid-March they would temporarily stop resettling refugees due to travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus. But before the pandemic, the United States had already slashed the number of refugees it would accept in the 2020 fiscal year to 18,000, the lowest level in decades.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S.-Canada border to close to nonessential travel: Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-Canada border will close to nonessential traffic, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday, saying details on the move would be announced later but that it would not affect trade between the two countries.

“We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!” Trump wrote.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Central American migrants ford river into Mexico, chuck rocks

By Roberto Ramirez

SUCHIATE RIVER, Guatemala/Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central Americans waded across a river into Mexico on Monday, some clashing with waiting security forces, in a new challenge for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to contain migration at the bidding of the United States.

Scattered groups launched rocks at a few members of Mexico’s National Guard who were on the banks of the river attempting to thwart any illegal crossings, as hundreds of others ran past into Mexico, video footage of the scene showed.

The mostly Honduran migrants appeared to grow impatient on the bridge over the Suchiate River that connects the two countries, after some were denied permission to cross by assembled Mexican migration officials.

“We didn’t come to stay here, we just want to cross to the other side,” said Ingrid, 18, a Honduran migrant. “I don’t want to go back to my country because there is nothing there, just hunger.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at taking pressure off the United States in absorbing the numbers.

At least 2,000 migrants had been camped in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, and most will be deported, the interior ministry said.

The ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Mexican authorities had already received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and set out various options to them in accordance with their migration status.

“However, in the majority of cases, once the particular migration situation has been reviewed, assisted returns will be carried out to their countries of origin, assuming that their situation warrants it,” the ministry said.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

In late 2018, a large caravan of migrants sought to break through the Tecun Uman border. At that time as well, many crossed via the Suchiate River dividing the two countries.

(Writing by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City. Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bernadette Baum)

Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

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)