U.S. in crisis mode as coronavirus cases soar, travel restrictions loom

Reuters
By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States went into crisis mode on Thursday to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has played havoc with businesses, shuttered schools and universities and severely disrupted the sports and entertainment world.

Fears of a recession grew as U.S. cases of the virus that causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness rose and the Trump administration prepared to roll out restrictions that threaten to cripple the travel industry.

U.S. stock markets cratered again after trading opened, with major indexes entering bear-market territory.

Officials in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including New York and Washington states, were trying to balance the need to protect the public while stopping short of actions that could freeze the daily lives of millions of people and stop economic activity.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN that “more and more restrictions” were likely on the way, though he said there were no plans to shut down the city’s famous theater district or its subway system, a vital transportation link.

“I don’t want to see Broadway go dark,” de Blasio said, adding that authorities will be issuing further guidance either on Thursday or Friday. He also announced the closure of two schools in the city due to a student’s “self-confirmed” positive case of COVID-19.

Hollywood has postponed the release of several movies and movie theaters around the world have been closed over the health crisis.

More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, has accounted for a large share of the deaths.

U.S. health officials have struggled to quickly expand testing capacity to make screening for the virus widely available, and have acknowledged that it is not easy for those possibly exposed to the virus to get tested.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association are among those who have been infected with the highly infectious coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The NBA has suspended its season until further notice.

Harvard and Princeton are among the universities that have announced they will move to virtual classroom instruction after the spring break later this month.

‘SELF-QUARANTINE’

U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from abroad will be screened for the virus and asked to go into “self-quarantine” for 14 days, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with CNN.

“Americans coming home will be funneled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.

President Donald Trump defended his decision to impose a 30-day restriction on travel from Europe, except Britain and Ireland, that goes into effect at midnight on Friday.

Speaking to reporters in the White House alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened, and added that he had been unable to consult with the European Union prior to announcing it on Wednesday night.

The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said. Global stock markets sank again on Thursday.

The S&P 500 <.SPX> and the Nasdaq <.IXIC> indexes entered into a bear market. The S&P 500 plunged more than 8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> was down 4.3%. Airline and some cruise line stocks were particularly hard hit.

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Democrats’ sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday, according to a Democratic aide.

Republicans have balked at the plan and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation, and Trump said on Thursday he didn’t support the bill.

Instead, Trump has pushed for a payroll tax cut and instructed the Treasury Department to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain business and individuals hit by the health crisis.

The president also backs emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani and Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Trump administration weighs emergency funds to combat coronavirus

By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering asking lawmakers for emergency funding to ramp up its response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, a White House spokesman and an administration source said on Monday, though they did not say how much money was needed.

“We need some funding here to make sure that we … protect all Americans, that we keep us safe,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox News Channel.

Asked how much funding the administration may ask Congress to approve, Gidley later told reporters at the White House that there was no announcement yet on the amount.

Politico and the Washington Post, citing unnamed individuals familiar with the planning, had reported the administration may request $1 billion funding from the U.S. Congress. An administration official told Reuters the amount was still being finalized, and the request could go to lawmakers this week.

The official said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was seeking an amount that some within the administration viewed as out of proportion, given the limited number of U.S. cases and other HHS funding that has not yet been used.

The outbreak has spread beyond central China to South Korea, Iran and Italy, rattling global markets.

The United States has not seen the kind of community spread that has hit China, but health officials are preparing for such a possibility even as those Americans affected so far have been quarantined.

There have been 13 cases of people diagnosed with the virus in the United States and 21 cases among Americans repatriated on evacuation flights from the virus epicenter of Wuhan, China, as well as from a cruise ship in Japan, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the funding requests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tapped Azar to lead a task force coordinating the response to the outbreak that the department has declared a public health emergency.

Democrats, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, have urged the administration to seek emergency funds after it notified Congress in recent weeks that it had already spent millions of dollars for its virus response, according to the Washington Post.

Trump has been at odds with his own White House advisers over China’s coronavirus response and has sought to downplay the impact of the virus, saying it could fade in April with warmer spring weather – something health experts said is unknown.

“We have aggressively worked to combat the spread of this virus, tried to prevent it as best we could from coming into this country,” Gidley told reporters.

The administration is also grappling with where to send Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who tested positive for the virus after backing off plans to quarantine them in a federal facility in Alabama.

In a statement on Monday, HHS cited a “rapidly evolving situation,” but said that the Alabama center was “not needed at this time” and that it was looking for alternatives.

“Any action that HHS takes, working with our federal, state and local partners, to address this public health emergency will be done in a way that protects both those infected with the virus and other citizens as well,” HHS said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York, and Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and David Gregorio)

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)

Trump administration to announce changes to anti-kickback rules for healthcare providers

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – The Trump administration will announce plans to change healthcare regulations on Wednesday to loosen anti-kickback provisions that restrict the kinds of outside services providers can refer patients to, administration officials said.

President Donald Trump on Thursday will explain how the new rules advance his broader healthcare agenda, which includes reducing regulatory burdens and promoting innovative ways to reimburse healthcare providers, in a speech in Minnesota, the officials said.

The plan will change how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforces the Physician Self Referral Law, also known as the Stark law, which penalizes healthcare providers for referring patients to outside services that the provider could stand to benefit from financially.

HHS will create exceptions for healthcare providers that enter into agreements with other parties if they are aimed at cutting costs and improving patient health, the officials said.

Trump issued an executive order last week that sought to woo seniors by strengthening the Medicare health program.

The order was the Republican president’s answer to Democrats like Bernie Sanders, who is running to become the party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential election and is promoting the idea of Medicare for all Americans.

The Trump administration has also rolled out measures in recent months designed to curtail drug prices and address other problems in the U.S. healthcare system.

Policy experts say the efforts are unlikely to slow the rise of drug prices in a meaningful way, however.

(This story corrects lead to show Trump administration officials, not President Trump, announcing plans on Wednesday)

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. to ramp up rapid deportations with sweeping new rule

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parks near the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Tijuana, Mexico July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it will expand and speed up deportations of migrants who enter the United States illegally by stripping away court oversight, enabling officials to remove people in days rather than months or years.

Set to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the rule will apply “expedited removal” to the majority of those who enter the United States illegally unless they can prove they have been living in the country for at least two years.

Legal experts said it was a dramatic expansion of a program already used along the U.S.-Mexican border that cuts out review by an immigration judge, usually without access to an attorney. Both are available in regular proceedings.

“The Trump administration is moving forward into converting ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) into a ‘show me your papers’ militia,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on a call with reporters.

It was likely the policy would be blocked quickly by a court, several experts said. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to block numerous Trump immigration policies in court, has vowed to sue.

President Donald Trump has struggled to stem an increase of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to overcrowded detention facilities and a political battle over a growing humanitarian crisis.

The government said increasing rapid deportations would free up detention space and ease strains on immigration courts, which face a backlog of more than 900,000 cases.

Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally could be quickly deported under the new rule, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 37%, or 20,570, of those encountered by ICE in the year to September, had been in the country less than two years.

People in rapid deportation proceedings are detained for 11.4 days on average, according to DHS. People in regular proceedings are held for 51.5 days and are released into the United States for the months or years it takes to resolve their cases.

Legal experts said the rule shreds basic due process and could create havoc beyond immigrant communities.

“ICE has been detaining and deporting U.S. citizens for decades,” said Jackie Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University. That policy came at a great cost to U.S. taxpayers in terms of litigation and compensation, she added.

&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; ICE in 2003 became a successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

U.S. citizens account for about 1% of those detained by ICE and about 0.5% of those deported, according to Stevens’ research.

“Expedited removal orders are going to make this much worse,” she said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in March ruled that those ordered deported in the sped-up process have a right to take their case to a judge.

Previously, only those immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country two weeks or less could be ordered rapidly deported. The policy makes an exception for immigrants who can establish a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Supreme Court faults Trump bid to add census citizenship question

FILE PHOTO: An informational pamphlet is displayed at an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s administration did not give an adequate explanation for its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, delivering a victory to New York state and others challenging the proposal.

The justices partly upheld a federal judge’s decision barring the question in a win for a group of states and immigrant rights organizations that challenged the plan. The mixed ruling does not definitively decide whether the question could be added at some point.

The Republican president’s administration had appealed to the Supreme Court after lower courts blocked the inclusion of the census question.

A group of states including New York and immigrant rights organizations sued to prevent the citizenship question from being included in the decennial population count. Opponents have said the question would instill fear in immigrant households that the information would be shared with law enforcement, deterring them from taking part.

The census, required by the U.S. Constitution, is used to allot seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and distribute some $800 billion in federal funds. The intent of the citizenship question, opponents said, is to manufacture a deliberate undercount of areas with high immigrant and Latino populations, costing Democratic-leaning regions seats in the House, benefiting Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

The administration argued that adding a question requiring people taking part in the census to declare whether they are a citizen was needed to better enforce a voting rights law, a rationale that opponents called a pretext for a political motive.

Manhattan-based U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Jan. 15 that the Commerce Department’s decision to add the question violated a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act. Federal judges in Maryland and California also have issued rulings to block the question’s inclusion, saying it would violate the Constitution’s mandate to enumerate the population every 10 years.

Furman said the evidence showed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross concealed his true motives for adding the question and that he and his aides had convinced the Justice Department to request a citizenship question.

Businesses also rely on census data to make critical strategic decisions, including where to invest capital. Citizenship has not been asked of all households since the 1950 census, featuring since then only on questionnaires sent to a smaller subset of the population.

The Census Bureau’s own experts estimated that households corresponding to 6.5 million people would not respond to the census if the citizenship question were asked.

While only U.S. citizens can vote, non-citizens comprise an estimated 7 percent of the population.

Evidence surfaced in May that the challengers said showed that the administration’s plan to add a citizenship question was intended to discriminate against racial minorities.

Documents created by Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, who died last year, showed that he was instrumental behind the scenes in instigating the addition of the citizenship question. He was an expert in drawing electoral district boundaries that maximize Republican chances of winning congressional elections.

Hofeller concluded in a 2015 study that asking census respondents whether they are American citizens “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” in redrawing electoral districts based on census data.

Hofeller suggested the voting rights rationale in the newly disclosed documents.

The Trump administration called the newly surfaced evidence “conspiracy theory.”

A federal judge in Maryland is reviewing the Hofeller evidence.

Most people living in the United States will be asked to fill out the census, whether online or on paper, by March 2020.

For a graphic on major Supreme Court rulings, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2V2T0Uf

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung and Bryan Pietsch; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. working to designate Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group: White House

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders talks to reporters at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, the White House said on Tuesday, which would bring sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.

“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked President Donald Trump to make the designation, which Egypt has already done, in a private meeting during a visit to Washington on April 9, a senior U.S. official said, confirming a report in the New York Times on Tuesday.

After the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “great president” while a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s record on human rights, efforts to keep him in office for many years and planned Russian arms purchases.

Sisi, who ousted President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and was elected president the following year, has overseen a crackdown on Islamists as well as liberal opposition in Egypt.

White House national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the designation but officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have been opposed and have been seeking more limited action, the senior official said.

The Brotherhood, which estimates its membership at up to 1 million people, came to power in Egypt&rsquo;s first modern free election in 2012, a year after long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising. But the movement is now banned and thousands of its supporters and much of its leadership have been jailed.

The Egyptian government blamed the organization for a 2013 suicide bomb attack on a police station that killed 16 people. The Brotherhood condemned that attack and denies using violence.

Some conservative and anti-Muslim activists have argued for years that the Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and sought to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate by peaceful means, has been a breeding ground for terrorists.

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist designation could complicate Washington’s relationship with NATO ally Turkey. The organization has close ties with President Tayyip Erdogan&rsquo;s ruling AK Party and many of its members fled to Turkey after the group&rsquo;s activities were banned in Egypt.

Turkey is under threat of U.S. sanctions if it pursues plans to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which are not compatible with NATO systems.

Washington also says Turkey&rsquo;s purchase of the S-400s would compromise the security of F-35 fighter jets, which are built by Lockheed Martin Corp and use stealth technology.

The U.S. administration debated the terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after Trump took office in January 2017.

Some branches of the Brotherhood, including the Palestinian group Hamas, have engaged in anti-government violence and provoked violent government reactions. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, was once a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Other offshoots in Turkey and Tunisia have forsworn violence and come to power by democratic means.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Trott)

Trump administration seeks emergency court order to continue asylum policy

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers exit the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The Trump administration rushed to save its program of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico by filing an emergency motion with a U.S. Court of Appeals, asking it to block an injunction that is set to shut down the policy on Friday afternoon.

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco the United States faced “a humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and needed immediate intervention to deal with the surging number of refugees.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled the policy was contrary to U.S. immigration law. He issued a nationwide injunction blocking the program and ordered it to take effect at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT).

Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that brought the case, said the stay should be denied to prevent irreparable harm to asylum seekers who could be unlawfully forced to return to Mexico.

Since January, the administration has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to wait the months or years it can take to process claims through an overloaded immigration system.

Seeborg’s ruling also ordered the 11 plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to be brought back to the United States.

Although it is appealing and the lower court order had yet to take effect, Reuters reporters confirmed that the Trump administration was allowing some asylum seekers from Mexico to return to the United States.

President Donald Trump has bristled at limits on his administration’s ability to detain asylum seekers while they fight deportation, and the administration was in the midst of expanding the program when Seeborg blocked it.

The government’s filing on Thursday night with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for two stays: a brief administrative stay, which would remain in place until the parties had argued the issue of a longer stay that would block the injunction during the months-long appeals process.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said there did not appear to be any justification for the request for the administrative stay since asylum seekers were already returning to the United States.

“There’s no urgency,” she said. “They are already complying with the court order.”

The 9th Circuit Court has been a frequent target for Trump’s criticisms of the judicial system, which has blocked his immigration policies on numerous occasions.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Tom Brown)

Venezuela detains top aide to Guaido in move U.S. calls ‘big mistake’

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Thursday intelligence agents had detained his chief of staff during a pre-dawn raid, a move by President Nicolas Maduro that the Trump administration said would “not go unanswered.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. He has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other Western nations as the country’s legitimate leader.

Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation’s economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should “face justice,” but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for the immediate release of Roberto Marrero. “Maduro has made another big mistake,” Bolton said on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said earlier on Thursday that “we will hold accountable those involved.”

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Maduro not to touch Guaido and his inner circle, but it is unclear what more they can do.

They have threatened ever harsher sanctions intended to further isolate Maduro and cut off his administration’s sources of revenue, but the humanitarian and political costs of further blanket measures could be high. Millions of Venezuelans are already suffering shortages of food and medicine.

Guaido said the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and another opposition legislator, Sergio Vergara, showed Maduro’s “weakness” and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.

“As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings,” Guaido told a news conference.

Marrero recorded a voice message as SEBIN agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas’ upscale Las Mercedes neighborhood, which Guaido’s press team forwarded to reporters.

“I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don’t stop and look after (Guaido),” Marrero said.

Vergara, Marrero’s neighbor, said some 40 armed SEBIN agents forced their way into their homes and spent three hours inside. The SEBIN left with Marrero and Vergara’s driver, the legislator said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Guaido said that Marrero had told Vergara that agents had planted two rifles and a grenade in his house.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“HELD TO ACCOUNT”

Since January, Venezuelan authorities have arrested over 1,000 people in connection with anti-government demonstrations, most of them arbitrarily, rights groups say.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, have quashed peaceful protests with excessive use of force, killings and torture.

On Thursday, the UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero’s detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero’s arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.

Maduro has said his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country’s situation.

Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping 2 million percent, which has fueled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than 3 million citizens since 2015.

While Trump has said all options remain open, there appears to be little support in Washington or regional Latin American capitals for any military intervention.

Guaido traveled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court.

He later entered the country via Venezuela’s principal airport without being detained by immigration officials.

Venezuela’s chief state prosecutor, Tarek Saab, last week asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Guaido for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the country’s electrical network, after the longest nationwide power blackout in decades.

The opposition, along with electrical experts, said the power outage was due to the government’s incompetence and years without maintenance.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas, Susan Heavey in Washington, and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien)