U.S. plans to send transportation staff to U.S.-Mexico border

FILE PHOTO: Concertina wire is seen atop a section of border fence near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, U.S. May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration plans to redirect Transportation Security Administration staff to the U.S. southern border to assist with immigration duties and migrant flows, the TSA said on Wednesday.

A TSA spokesman said in a statement the bureau was looking for volunteers to support efforts at the U.S. border with Mexico, where the government has said it is grappling with record numbers of people.

“TSA, like all DHS components, is supporting the DHS effort to address the humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border. TSA is in the process of soliciting volunteers to support this effort while minimizing operational impact,” TSA spokesman James Gregory said in a statement.

The TSA border assignment will last at least 45 days and comes at the start of the busy summer travel season, which a U.S. official acknowledged carried “some risk,” CNN reported, citing an internal email it obtained.

TSA staff will include 175 law enforcement officials, including air marshals, and as many as 400 security staff drawn from six U.S. cities but will not include airport screeners, CNN said, citing two additional unnamed sources. The six cities were not immediately identified.

TSA law enforcement officials sent to the border will receive legal training and assist the Customs and Border Protection department as immigration officers, the report said.

The decision comes as the airline and travel industry urge lawmakers to approve funding for more Customs and Border Patrol officers, warning of excessive wait times for traveling and shipping as officers have been shifted to the border.

The Department of Interior has also doubled the number of officers it is sending for three-week stints to the border, from 22 to 47, The Hill reported on Wednesday, citing an internal memorandum.

An Interior Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. government reported earlier this month that border officers had apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the border with Mexico in April, the highest figure since 2007. More than two-thirds of those apprehended were children or people traveling as families.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Meredith Mazzilli)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

Mexican president says illegal immigration to U.S. ‘is not up to us’

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looks on during a meeting with industry bosses and members of his cabinet to discuss the new administration's policy on the minimum wage at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Phot

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he was committed to helping curb illegal immigration after renewed Twitter criticism by U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, but he suggested it was an issue chiefly for the United States and Central America to address.

Illegal immigration across the U.S. border has caused persistent bilateral tensions ever since Trump launched his bid for the presidency almost four years ago, saying that Mexico was sending rapists and drug runners into the United States.

With initial campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election already underway, Trump sent out a tweet early Thursday that again attacked Mexico over migration.

“Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to our Country,” Trump wrote. “They are all talk and no action. Likewise, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have taken our money for years, and do Nothing.”

Trump again threatened to close the U.S. southern border.

At his regular morning news conference, Lopez Obrador was asked about Trump’s tweet, and said he was focused on addressing the root causes of migration. He repeated that he wanted a cordial relationship with Trump.

“We respect president Trump’s position, and we are going to help. That is, this is a problem of the United States, or it’s a problem of the Central American countries. It’s not up to us Mexicans, no,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

“I just emphasize that migration flows of Mexicans to the United States are very low, a lot lower,” he said. “The Mexican is no longer seeking work in the United States. The majority are inhabitants of our fellow Central American countries.”

Trump’s latest broadside came one day after the United States, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador agreed to conduct joint police operations in Central America to improve border security and tackle illegal immigration.

The three countries account for the bulk of migrants apprehended trying to cross illegally into the United States.

Trump’s remarks also followed calls on social media for a new caravan of migrants to form in Honduras.

Over the weekend, a group of around 1,200 migrants, most of them from Central America, began moving toward the U.S. border from southern Mexico.

(Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Deep 7.5-magnitude quake hits Ecuador-Peru border region

People gather outside the hospital after an earthquake in Guayaquil, Ecuador February 22, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Edison Manjarrez via REUTERS

By Alexandra Valencia and Mitra Taj

QUITO/LIMA (Reuters) – A deep magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the Peru-Ecuador border region early on Friday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey said, causing tremors that the Ecuadorian president said were felt around the country.

The quake’s epicenter was in a sparsely populated area 224 km (140 miles) east-southeast of Ambato, Ecuador, at a depth of 132 km. The USGS’s initial reading assessed the quake, which occurred at 5:17 a.m. local time (1017 GMT), at magnitude 7.7.

There was no risk of a tsunami being triggered, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and there were no initial reports of casualties or damage.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said on Twitter that preliminary reports “do not indicate major damage,” though he added that provincial response teams had been activated and that the tremors had been “felt throughout the country.”

One resident in Cuenca, Ecuador, 253 km (157 miles) from the epicenter, described the temblor as very strong, while a second resident there reported experiencing “a good 30-second shake,” according to witness statements on the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center website.

Ecuador’s emergency response service said the main quake and other smaller ones had shook the south of the country with reports of some minor injuries, evacuation of patients and staff from several hospitals and damage reported in some Amazonian towns.

Some areas were without electrical power, authorities said, while the country’s oil pipelines and hydroelectric dams were operating normally.

In towns near the epicenter of the quake, the tremors caused alarm. “I felt the walls and the floor move. I was very scared and we went out to the street,” Lissette Alarcon, a 25-year-old university student, told Reuters.

“We still aren’t used to these earthquakes,” she said.

A magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck Peru’s southern coast in January 2018, killing one person, injuring scores more and causing roads and homes to collapse. A 7.8-magnitude quake in Ecuador killed around 700 people in 2016.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Jason Neely and John Stonestreet in London; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Alison Williams and Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. to return first Central American asylum seekers to Mexico

A migrant man and woman, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America tying to reach the United States, carry their belongings during the closing of the Barretal shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Julia Love

TIJUANA (Reuters) – The United States will send the first group of Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico on Tuesday, a U.S. official said, as part of a hardened immigration policy to keep migrants south of the border while their cases are processed in U.S. courts.

Tuesday’s return of migrants was to be carried out under a policy dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said. Mexican officials had said on Friday that the transfers would happen that day.

MPP was implemented “once the appropriate field guidance was issued,” Waldman said.

A Mexican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said the first group would be sent across on Tuesday.

Under MPP, the United States will return non-Mexican migrants who cross the U.S. southern border back to Mexico while their asylum requests are processed in U.S. immigration courts.

Asylum seekers have traditionally been granted the right to stay in the United States while their cases were decided by an immigration judge, but a backlog of more than 800,000 cases means the process can take years.

U.S. authorities are expected to send as many as 20 people per day through the Mexican border city of Tijuana and gradually start sending people back through the other legal ports of entry, Mexico’s foreign ministry said on Friday.

The U.S. policy is aimed at curbing the increasing number of families arriving mostly from Central America to request asylum who say they fear returning home because of threats of violence there. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump says many of the claims are not valid.

(Reporting by Julia Love in Tijuana, Yeganeh Torbati in New York and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Writing by Delphine Schrank and Anthony Esposito; editing by Grant McCool)

Mexico calls for ‘full investigation’ of U.S. tear gas at border

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Susan Heavey and Lizbeth Diaz

WASHINGTON/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico’s foreign ministry presented a diplomatic note to the U.S. government on Monday calling for “a full investigation” into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed toward Mexican territory on Sunday, a statement from the ministry said.

The formal request came a day after U.S. authorities fired tear gas canisters toward migrants in Mexico – near the border crossing separating Tijuana from San Diego, California – when some rushed through border fencing into the United States.

More than 40 were arrested on the U.S. side, U.S. border authorities said, adding that none were believed to have successfully crossed further into Californian territory.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at an event in Mississippi that he would close the border if migrants “charge” the barrier. During the melee on Sunday, U.S. authorities shut San Ysidro, the country’s busiest border crossing, for several hours.

“We would close it and we’ll keep it closed if we’re going to have a problem. We’ll keep it closed for a long period of time,” Trump said.

Sunday’s incident was the latest chapter in a saga that has pitted Trump’s hardline immigration policies against thousands of migrants who have made their way north through Mexico from violent and impoverished Central American countries.

Tensions had been growing in Tijuana, and Trump said on Saturday the migrants would have to wait in Mexico until their individual asylum claims were resolved in the United States. That would be a significant shift in asylum policy that could keep Central Americans in Mexico for more than a year.

Trump went further on Monday, saying Mexico should send the Central Americans, mostly Hondurans, back home.

“Mexico should move the flag-waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it any way you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!” Trump tweeted.

Mexico has been in negotiations with the United States over a possible scheme to keep migrants in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed.

The team of Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office on Saturday, has said no deal has been agreed on the migrants. But officials have hinted they could remain.

“We should be objective, whatever happens, they will stay in Mexico,” said Alejandro Encinas, an incoming deputy interior minister. “Migrants have rights and we will respect them.”

CRITICISM

U.S. government agencies defended the response to Sunday’s incident at the San Ysidro crossing south of San Diego, California. News pictures showing children fleeing tear gas prompted sharp criticism from some lawmakers and charities.

British aid group Oxfam said the use of tear gas was shameful.

“Images of barefoot children choking on tear gas thrown by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol should shock us to our core,” Vicki Gass, Oxfam America Senior Policy Advisor for Central America, said in a statement.

Democrats and other critics called the use of tear gas an overreaction and questioned the idea of keeping the migrants in Mexico to make asylum claims there.

Some rights advocates and legal experts were concerned that the Trump administration was seeking to exploit the clashes.

Geoffrey Hoffman, a professor and director of the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic, which represents migrants applying for asylum, said the government would use it to push the argument that the migrants should remain in Mexico.

Still, Rodney Scott, chief U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego, told CNN the vast majority of those assembled at the border were economic migrants who would not qualify for asylum and said there were few women and children.

“What I saw on the border yesterday was not people walking up to Border Patrol agents and asking to claim asylum,” he said.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that the agency has “confirmed that there are over 600 convicted criminals traveling with the caravan.”

She also said the women and children in the caravan were being used as “human shields” by organizers when they confront law enforcement.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement four agents were hit with rocks on Sunday, but they did not suffer serious injuries.

WAITING GAME

Tijuana police chief Mario Martinez told a news conference on Monday that 194 Central Americans had been arrested in the 15 days the caravan has been in the area.

The migrants have traveled through Mexico in large groups, or caravans. There are more than 7,000 at the U.S. border in Tijuana and the city of Mexicali, with more than 800 others still moving toward the border.

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum, who has said his city is facing a humanitarian crisis, told a local radio station the United States would take up to three months to start processing asylum requests.

Many of those in Tijuana have said they will wait there until they can seek asylum. If they enter the United States, legally or illegally, they have a right to seek asylum.

Melkin Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Honduran man, recounting Sunday’s tear gas firing, said: “I fell in dirty water when I was running (away) and I still don’t have any clothes to change into. Even so, I’m not going back to Honduras, I want to go to the United States.”

The U.S. military said it had shifted about 300 service members from Texas and Arizona to California in recent days. In total, about 5,600 active-duty troops are on the border with Mexico.

U.S. military officials have said they expected troops to be repositioned as the situation developed and changed.

Nielsen said her agency was prepared to address any future violence by deploying more U.S. military forces.

U.S. lawmakers face a deadline to approve funding for the federal government by Dec. 7. Trump has threatened to shut down the government unless Congress pays for his planned border wall.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Idrees Ali in Washington, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Steve Holland in Gulfport, Mississippi; Writing by Susan Heavey and Frances Kerry; Editing by Alistair Bell, James Dalgleish and Rosalba O’Brien)

Divided by war, Israel and Gaza’s Instagrammers tell their own stories

Israeli teens, Meshy Elmkies (R), 16, Liam Yefet (C), 16 and Lee Cohen, 17, co-managers of Instagram account, Otef.Gaza, look at their mobile phones as they sit on a swing at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom which borders the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel November 11, 2018. Picture taken November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Rami Ayyub, Leah Angel and Nidal al-Mughrabi

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – In another part of the world they might have gone to the same schools or be sharing wifi in the same coffee shops.

Although these young women Instagrammers live just a few kilometers apart, they will likely never meet. One group are Gaza Palestinians and the other are Israeli schoolgirls living beside Gaza, with Israel’s concrete and razorwire border fortifications stretching between them.

But one thing they share is a desire to take control of their own stories. Both groups are convinced that their lives are misrepresented or misunderstood by the outside world.

The missiles have stopped flying – for the moment – and the world’s eyes have already moved on after a week which saw the fiercest rocket salvoes and air strikes since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip.

But the people of Gaza and Israel’s border communities remain, waiting for the next crisis, which is rarely long coming.

“Gaza is closed, not many have access here. With Instagram, you can show Gaza to the world through your own eyes” said Manar Alzraiy, project manager of “We Are Not Numbers”, a Gaza-based program for young writers, artists and photographers.

Her group runs commentary on destruction and conflict in the Gaza Strip but also seeks to broaden the war-focused narrative about Gaza by sharing stories of ordinary people.

“During attacks by the Israelis, we want to get our message out there. But we have to be mindful of what our group is experiencing – the stress, anxiety. We can’t always do it,” she said.

On the Israeli side, the Instagram account Otef Gaza, which means “Gaza Periphery” in Hebrew, was started by a group of teenage girls in and around Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz beside the border.

The group highlights photographs of farmland scorched by incendiary devices flown into Israel during Palestinian border protests and rockets fired by Gaza militants which send Israelis running to shelters.

“People are not aware that this is our reality, and they simply ignore us,” said Lee Cohen, 17, who co-manages the account.

“You can’t sleep because of the rocket sirens, the explosions, helicopters flying overhead and the fear of terrorists from Gaza coming in through a tunnel and trying to kill people.”

Members of 'We Are Not Numbers' team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Members of ‘We Are Not Numbers’ team work on laptops in an office in Gaza City November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

HUMAN PROBLEMS

Inside the Gaza Strip, 225 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since border protests began on March 30, according to Palestinian health officials.

Israel says that many of those killed were militants and that its troops are defending the border. One Israeli soldier has been killed during the protests when he was hit by Hamas gunfire.

In Gaza City 27-year-old Alzraiy said the purpose of “We Are Not Numbers” was “to speak of the human problems” of Gaza.

“You get used to the feeling that at any moment, something could happen,” she said. “It’s like just for a second, you could lose your value as a human being.”

Another Gazan, Fatma Abu Musabbeh, 22, takes another approach. She insists on showing only positive images, so her account features manicured gardens and stonecraft buildings.

“When there is a war or difficult situation, I post a photo or two to tell my followers and the world that Gaza is beautiful, despite what is happening,” said Abu Musabbeh.

Across the border one of the Israeli Instagrammers, Meshy Elmkies, 16, said they use the app because it is easy to organize information, “and I personally think that teenagers have the power to make an impact.”

During a phone call with Reuters last week, the voice of her friend, Lee Cohen, suddenly became hushed.

“There’s a red alert siren,” she muttered. “Can we speak later?”

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

Exclusive: U.S. troop levels at Mexico border likely at peak – commander

FILE PHOTO: Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North 5th Army, visits the San Ysidro border crossing with Mexico in San Diego, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Phil Stewart

BASE CAMP DONNA, Texas (Reuters) – The number of U.S. troops at the border with Mexico may have peaked at about 5,800, the U.S. commander of the mission told Reuters, noting he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to new border positions.

The outlook by Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, while not definitive, suggests that the high-profile military mission could soon achieve its goal of helping harden the border ahead of the expected arrival of caravans of Central American migrants in the coming weeks.

The deployment, which critics have called a pre-election political stunt by President Donald Trump, was initially expected to reach more than 7,000 forces, acting in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the mission through Dec. 15 and while Buchanan did not rule out an extension, he did not think one appeared likely at this point, based on the current set of tasks assigned to the military.

“It is a hard date. And we have no indications that CBP is going to need us to do our work for longer than that,” Buchanan said on Wednesday at Base Camp Donna in Texas, as Mattis toured the site near the Mexico border.

He acknowledged that there could be new requests, saying: “If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”

Asked whether he thought the troop levels had peaked, Buchanan said: “I do. We might increase by a hundred here or there, but probably not.”

Trump’s politically charged decision to send U.S. troops to the border with Mexico came ahead of U.S. congressional elections last week, as Trump sought to strengthen border security as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump’s supporters, including Republicans in Congress, have embraced the deployment.

But critics have said it was designed to drive Republican voters to the polls. They have scoffed at Trump’s comparison of caravans of Central American migrants, including women and children, fleeing poverty and violence, to an “invasion.”

Mattis defended the deployment on Wednesday, saying the mission was “absolutely legal,” justified and was improving military readiness.

‘RIGHTSIZING’

Buchanan also said his mission guidelines were clear – to support CBP personnel. He said his work was apolitical.

“I’m not being directed to do anything unnatural from above me,” said Buchanan, who is commander of U.S. Army North.

The Pentagon says there are no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants and instead have been carrying out support tasks for CBP, like stringing up concertina wire and building temporary housing for themselves and CBP personnel.

In recent days, up to 1,000 migrants linked to the caravans have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, with a similar number expected to arrive in the next day or so. Thousands more could arrive in border towns over the coming days as the bulk of the caravans arrive.

Buchanan estimated that about 5,800 troops were deployed in total, with about 1,500 in California, 1,500 in Arizona and 2,800 in Texas. Buchanan acknowledged he might shift forces east or west along the border if needed.

Mattis told reporters earlier on Wednesday that U.S. soldiers were making rapid progress erecting barriers along the border and estimated the first, construction phase of the U.S. military effort could be completed within 10 days.

Buchanan suggested troops would go home once they had fulfilled requests by CBP.

“At some point in time, I’m not going to keep troops here just to keep them here. When the work is done, we’re going to start downsizing some capability,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan would need to make any recommendations on redeployment of troops to General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command. O’Shaughnessy would then report to Mattis.

He suggested a recommendation could be made in the near future.

“I’m looking as early as next week to start thinking through rightsizing if we need to change. Or do I need to shift (troops elsewhere on the border),” Buchanan said, without predicting when changes might occur.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Mexico offers plan to keep U.S.-bound migrants in Mexico

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America en route to the United States, hitchhike on a truck along the highway to Arriaga from Pijijiapan, Mexico, October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Delphine Schrank

PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico on Friday offered temporary identification papers and jobs to migrants who register for asylum in the country, stepping up efforts to halt the advance of a U.S.-bound Central American caravan that has angered Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border and cut aid to Central America to try to stop the caravan of several thousand people. U.S. officials have said that up to 1,000 troops may be sent to the U.S. southern border to prevent the migrants from crossing.

Making reference to the caravan, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said that migrants wishing to obtain temporary identification documents, jobs or education for their children could do so by registering for asylum in southern Mexico.

“This plan is only for those who comply with Mexican laws, and it’s a first step towards a permanent solution for those who are granted refugee status in Mexico,” Pena Nieto said in a pre-recorded address broadcast on Friday afternoon.

To qualify for the scheme he called “Estas en Tu Casa” (‘Make Yourself at Home’) migrants had to be in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, Pena Nieto said.

Temporary work in the states would be extended so as also to benefit Mexicans, said Pena Nieto, who leaves office on Nov. 30.

The caravan, which is moving through Chiapas on the border of Guatemala, has enabled Trump to campaign hard on illegal immigration ahead of midterm congressional elections on Nov. 6, in which Republicans are battling to keep control of Congress.

Mexican officials have said those migrants who do not qualify for refugee status are liable to be deported.

Mexico’s government has said that more than 1,700 people in the convoy have registered for asylum, while others have returned home. Estimates on the size of the group vary.

Alden Rivera, the Honduran ambassador to Mexico, told Mexican radio on Friday that the caravan could reach Mexico City by next Friday. He put an “official” headcount at 3,500, estimating that at least two-thirds of them were Hondurans.

The caravan set off in Honduras nearly two weeks ago and has picked up other Central Americans en route.

Alexander Fernandez, a Honduran traveling in the caravan, said people began leaving the town of Pijijiapan at about 3 a.m. to head for Arriaga, a town in the west of Chiapas.

A banner hanging over a bridge on the migrants’ path read: “Your hearts are brave, don’t give up.”

Tens of thousands of Central Americans set off for the United States every year, looking to escape violence and poverty. Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans make up the bulk of illegal immigrants apprehended at the U.S. border.

On Thursday night, thousands of people took refuge under small tents or teepees made from garbage bags in Pijijiapan’s town square. Many people rushed to a nearby river in the afternoon to wash off the sweat of travel and extreme heat.

A White House official said on Thursday that “a wide range of administrative, legal and legislative options” were being considered regarding the migrants.

(Additional reporting by Veronica Gomez in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham and Tom Brown)