Al-Tanf, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — The top U.S. commander for the Middle East made an unannounced visit Monday to a key military outpost in southern Syria, pressing the need for a continued U.S. presence there to root out remaining Islamic State fighters and serve as leverage against growing Iranian activity in the region.
Striding through the rocky and dusty al-Tanf garrison, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said the outpost near the Iraq and Jordan borders still serves an important purpose even though U.S. and coalition troops have "largely eliminated" the Islamic State group from the area. But he said the overall mission has not shifted into a counter-Iran campaign.
"We have a defeat ISIS mission," said Votel, referring to the Islamic State group. "But I do recognize that our presence, our development of partners and relationships down here does have an indirect effect on some of the malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue down here."
An Associated Press reporter and journalists from two other media organizations accompanied Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, to the garrison. It was the first time that media members gained access to the garrison, which opened in 2015. For security reasons, his visit couldn't be disclosed until after he left the country.
Votel's visit to the base underscored the dual role it plays because of its strategic location.
There are 200 to 300 U.S. and coalition troops there to train and accompany local Syrian opposition forces on patrols to counter the IS group. The base is also located on a vital road linking Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel's doorstep.
The military will not say how many of the troops are U.S., but they appeared to make up a significant portion.
Because of its location, the base represents what some believe is a key bargaining chip in the campaign to bring peace to Syria and to decrease, if not eliminate, the Iranian presence from the country.
Israel and the United States have demanded the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that any talks about the withdrawal of Iranian forces would be contingent on providing security guarantees for Syria. Syrian leaders, meanwhile, have called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Tanf area.
So, even as forces at the border base focus on the IS fight, they are seen as a military line in the sand against Iran's campaign to strengthen its hold on Syria.
A full withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria is unlikely, since Tehran and its proxies, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, have consolidated ground across southern Syria. Iran has repeatedly insisted that it only has advisers in Syria, but Tehran is now believed to command up to 80,000 Shiite militia fighters and paramilitary forces in Syria.
And Iran and Russia have given Syrian President Bashar Assad crucial military and political assistance as his regime has recaptured around 60 percent of the country.
Messages from President Donald Trump's administration on the U.S. role in Syria have been mixed, with Trump saying both that he wanted to get U.S. troops out and that stopping Iran's malign influence in the region is a priority. More broadly, the U.S. sees its military presence in Syria as a pressure point, to drive a political transition in the war-ravaged country.
Votel acknowledged the military's role in the ongoing push for a political settlement, saying that "a key part of our job is to ensure that our diplomats have the maximum amount of leverage to do their jobs. And holding terrain — whether it's al-Tanf or anywhere else — I think, provides leverage."
Still, he and other military leaders at the base focused on the IS fight on Monday, as troops trained members of the Maghawir al-Thawra, or MAT, a Syrian opposition group that numbers about 300.
Along the dirt berm that encircles the outpost, about 10 MAT soldiers were lying on the ground Monday morning, peering through the scopes of their M-16 rifles and firing at targets as part of a training day. U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers looked on and hollered out instructions.
Col. Muhannad al Tala, leader of the MAT troops, said through an interpreter that he wants the coalition troops to stay and to continue to go out on patrols with his forces to battle IS.
Standing on the Baghdad Damascus Highway, which cuts through the base, Tala said that while his main mission is IS, he believes his troops must protect people in the region from any force moving through, including Iran.
At his feet as he spoke were dozens of shell casings — a testament to the live-fire training that his troops have done along the outer perimeter.
Inside the coalition section of the garrison, bombed-out concrete structures, precariously held up by leaning columns scarred by artillery blasts, provided a grim reminder of earlier fights to take the outpost back from IS control.
Votel, who spent about six hours at the base, warned against counting IS out too fast.
He said the base provides a critical location where troops can watch for IS members fleeing the fierce fighting against the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle Euphrates Rivers Valley. The MAT, and coalition troops that accompany them on patrols, can help ensure that IS is not able to regroup and set up a headquarters in southern Syria.
And IS fighters fleeing the U.S.-led coalition from the final main combat in the Middle Euphrates River Valley are finding refuge in the sprawling deserts and scattered villages across southern Syria.
"I think the challenge for us is to keep the pressure on them," said Votel, adding that if the coalition doesn't keep IS on the run, the group gets the opportunity to reorganize and reconstitute their insurgent networks.
Houston, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump escalated his immigration rhetoric at a midterm rally in Texas on Monday, falsely accusing Democrats of "encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overwhelm our nation."
With weeks to go before Election Day, Trump is seeking to drive Republican turnout with his hard-line immigration policies. He cast the November choice in stark terms before the Houston rally for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, saying Democrats "have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country."
Trump spoke before a massive crowd on behalf of his former foe, who faces a strong challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke. When the two competed in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump would frequently deride his rival as "Lyin' Ted" but said in Texas that their relationship had come a long way.
"Nobody has helped me more with your tax cut, with your regulation," Trump said, also attacking O'Rourke, as a "stone-cold phony."
With the midterms drawing near, Trump has emphasized immigration, targeting a migrant caravan heading to the U.S. southern border. The president's focus on immigration politics comes as he seeks to counter Democratic enthusiasm in November. Trump believes that his campaign pledges, including his much vaunted — and still-unfulfilled — promise to quickly build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, are still rallying cries.
Trump is betting that his latest focus will further erode the enthusiasm gap that began to close during the debate over Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court. But the approach offers both risks and rewards.
The hard-line rhetoric may be popular among the red-state rural Republicans who will play an outsized role in the top Senate contests. But it may further alienate the moderate Republicans and women in the overwhelmingly suburban races that will decide the House majority — including several in Texas, California and Florida that feature large Hispanic populations.
On Monday night, Trump called the caravan an "assault on our country" and suggested, without citing evidence, that "Democrats had something to do with it." He added: "We need a wall built fast."
Earlier Monday, Trump said the U.S. will begin "cutting off, or substantially reducing" aid to three Central American nations because of the caravan.
In Texas, an enthusiastic crowd packed into Houston's Toyota Center, wearing red Make America Great Again hats and waving signs, including some with the president's new catchphrase, "Jobs vs. Mobs."
Speaking before Trump took the stage, Cruz made clear that their conflict was behind them and that the two were working together. His biggest applause came when he predicted that "in 2020, Donald Trump will be overwhelmingly re-elected."
A series of elected state officials were among the warmup speakers, as well as Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump and son Eric Trump, who told the audience that "we are driving the Democrats absolutely nuts."
Trump gleefully used his latest attack line against Democrats, saying, "Democrats produce mobs, Republicans produce jobs." He declared Democrats would be a "big risk to the American family," and went after some of his favorite targets, including Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Rep. Maxine Waters, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The president stressed tax cuts, the strong economy and the hurricane response in the state. He repeated his pledge for a new middle-income tax cut of about 10 percent, though he offered few details on the plan. Trump said they would be "putting it in" next week, though Congress is not in session.
Trump also criticized so-called globalists, declaring, "You know what I am? I'm a nationalist."
Trump's Texas stop is part of a campaign blitz that is expected to last until Election Day.
Although political relationships tend to be fluid, Trump's appearance for Cruz is notable, given that the two were bitter enemies during the 2016 primaries. After Trump insulted Cruz's wife and father, and Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican convention, it was far from clear that the two would ever put it all behind them.
But they started rebuilding in the closing days of the campaign and have worked together since Trump took the White House.
The White House views Cruz as a loyal vote for his agenda. Trump promised he would come to Texas after the Senate race grew closer than expected, with O'Rourke out-fundraising Cruz and drawing large and enthusiastic crowds around the state. Cruz, who is leading O'Rourke in the polls, said over the summer that he would welcome Trump's support, though he has brushed off any suggestion he'd need Trump to win.
During the 2016 Republican primary, Trump assailed Cruz as a liar and "dishonest politician," insulted his wife's appearance and promoted unsubstantiated claims that Cruz's father had links to President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Trump on Monday did not voice any second thoughts about labeling Cruz the son of a presidential killer, telling reporters, "I don't regret anything."
Cruz gave back as good as he got in 2016. He savaged Trump as a "pathological liar," an "amoral bully" and a "sniveling coward." After Cruz lost the primary, he gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he did not endorse Trump and instead called on Republicans to "vote your conscience," drawing boos from the crowd. But he announced his support about a month before Election Day — and won points in Trump's camp for not withdrawing after the "Access Hollywood" tape was released in which Trump bragged about groping women. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report from New York.
Tapachula, Mexico, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of Central American migrants resumed an arduous trek toward the U.S. border Monday, with many bristling at suggestions there could be terrorists among them and saying the caravan is being used for political ends by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The caravan's numbers have continued to grow as they walk and hitch rides through hot and humid weather, and the United Nations estimated that it currently comprises some 7,200 people, "many of whom intend to continue the march north."
However, they were still at least 1,140 miles (1,830 kilometers) from the nearest border crossing — McAllen, Texas — and the length of their journey could more than double if they go to Tijuana-San Diego, the destination of another caravan earlier this year. That one shrank significantly as it moved through Mexico, and only a tiny fraction — about 200 of the 1,200 in the group — reached the California border.
The same could well happen this time around as some turn back, splinter off on their own or decide to take their chances on asylum in Mexico — as 1,128 have done so far, according to the country's Interior Department.
While such caravans have occurred semi-regularly over the years, this one has become a particularly hot topic ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections in the U.S., and an immigrant rights activist traveling with the group accused Trump of using it to stir up his Republican base.
"It is a shame that a president so powerful uses this caravan for political ends," said Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras — People Without Borders — which works to provide humanitarian aid to migrants.
Some have questioned the timing so close to the vote and whether some political force was behind it, though by all appearances it began as a group of about 160 who decided to band together in Honduras for protection and snowballed as they moved north.
"No one is capable of organizing this many people," Mujica said, adding that there are only two forces driving them: "hunger and death."
Earlier in the day Trump renewed threats against Central American governments and blasted Democrats via Twitter for what he called "pathetic" immigration laws.
In another tweet, he blamed Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for not stopping people from leaving their countries. "We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them," he wrote.
A team of AP journalists traveling with the caravan for more than a week has spoken with Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, but has not met any Middle Easterners, who Trump suggested were "mixed in" with the Central American migrants.
It was clear, though, that more migrants were continuing to join the caravan.
Ana Luisa Espana, a laundry worker from Chiquimula, Guatemala, joined the caravan as she saw it pass through her country.
Even though the goal is to reach the U.S. border, she said: "We only want to work and if a job turns up in Mexico, I would do it. We would do anything, except bad things."
Denis Omar Contreras, a Honduran-born caravan leader also with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said accusations that the caravan is harboring terrorists should stop.
"There isn't a single terrorist here," Contreras said. "We are all people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And as far as I know there are no terrorists in these four countries, at least beyond the corrupt governments."
The migrants, many of them with blistered and bandaged feet, left the southern city of Tapachula in the early afternoon Monday under a burning sun bound for Huixtla, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.
In interviews along the journey, migrants have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption. The caravan is unlike previous mass migrations for its unprecedented large numbers and because it largely sprang up spontaneously through word of mouth.
Carlos Leonidas Garcia Urbina, a 28-year-old from Tocoa, Honduras, said he was cutting the grass in his father's yard when he heard about the caravan, dropped the shears on the ground and ran to join with just 500 lempiras ($20) in his pocket.
"We are going to the promised land," Garcia said, motioning to his fellow travelers.
Motorists in pickups and other vehicles have been offering the migrants rides, often in overloaded truck beds, and a male migrant fell from the back of one Monday and died.
"It is the responsibility of the driver, but it is very dangerous, and there you have the consequences," Mexican federal police officer Miguel Angel Dominguez said, pointing to a puddle of blood around the man's head.
Police started stopping crowded trucks and forcing people to get off.
Caravan leaders have not defined the precise route or decided where on the U.S. border they want to arrive, but in recent years most Central American migrants traveling on their own have opted for the most direct route, which takes them to Reynosa, across from McAllen.
Late Sunday, authorities in Guatemala said another group of about 1,000 migrants had entered that country from Honduras.
Red Cross official Ulises Garcia said some injured people refused to be taken to clinics or hospitals.
"We have had people who have ankle or shoulder injuries, from falls during the trip, and even though we have offered to take them somewhere where they can get better care, they have refused, because they fear they'll be detained and deported," Garcia said.
Roberto Lorenzana, a spokesman for El Salvador's presidency, said his government hopes tensions over the caravan decrease after the U.S. elections.
"We have confidence in the maturity of United States authorities to continue strengthening a positive relationship with our country," Lorenzana said.
Asked if he thinks Trump will follow through on his threat to cut aid to El Salvador, he said, "I don't know. Of course the president has a lot of power, but they will have to explain it there to the different government structures."
Lorenzana added that El Salvador has significantly reduced violence, a key driver of migration, and that the flow of Salvadoran migrants has dropped 60 percent in two years.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said large numbers of migrants were still arriving in Mexico and were "likely to remain in the country for an extended period."
The first waves of migrants began arriving in the southern town of Huixtla after an exhausting eight-hour trek and quickly staked out grassy spots in the town square to bed down overnight.
Marlon Anibal Castellanos, a 27-year-old former bus driver from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, roped a bit of plastic tarp to a tree to shelter his wife, 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
Castellanos said the family walked for six hours until they could go no farther. They saw the dead man who fell from the truck, and the danger of being on the road was troublesome, out in the middle of the countryside far from an ambulance or medical care should the kids to pass out in the heat.
"It's hard to travel with children, Castellanos said."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City, Edie Lederer at the United Nations and Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, contributed to this report.
Jacksonville, Oct 22 (AP/UNB) — Six people have been wounded in a street shooting blocks from the Florida stadium where the NFL's Houston Texans played and defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon, authorities said.
Ron Lendvay, director of investigations for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, said several shots rang out about 12:35 p.m. Sunday on a boulevard in the stadium's general area and that five men and one woman were hit by gunfire. All were rushed to hospitals, and the sheriff's office tweeted that three of the victims were in critical condition. The victims ranged in age from their 20s to the 70s, according to Lendvay.
The shooting broke out before the scheduled 1 p.m. start of play. Lendvay reported no link to the game, which went on without incident, and said investigators were investigating whether it was gang-related.
The Texans won their fourth consecutive game Sunday, defeating the Jaguars 20-7 to take a one-game lead in the AFC South at the stadium, TIAA Bank Field.
Local media reports cited authorities as saying the shooting had had no impact on game day activities though some fans headed to the game reported hearing the gunfire.
Lendvay told reporters that a shooter fired from the passenger side of a gray, four-door sedan driven by a companion and that the victims were hit outside on the sidewalk near a laundromat. He said the car immediately drove off and that detectives had been checking surveillance video in hopes of identifying the vehicle and those involved.
"There were at least two people in the car," Lendvay said. He added that investigators didn't know if any others were in the car and he didn't rule out the possibility of other shooters elsewhere.
"This may be gang-related based on information obtained in the early stages of the investigation," he told reporters Sunday, declining to elaborate.
Some fans told local broadcast outlet New4Jax that they heard shots as they headed to the stadium.
"We had just parked our cars," Vanessa Holmes told the new outlet, adding she and some family members were walking when it happened. "We heard the shots. We didn't know if we should fall to the ground. We didn't know what to do," she said.
Others told the broadcast outlet that they saw people running out of the coin laundry business when the shots were fired.
Some said it was a series of shots.
"We were over there talking and suddenly, it was like ten gunshots. We ran and went for cover and then I saw the police, and people were crowding down there," a woman identified as Yvonne Lee told News4Jax.
An update on the conditions of the wounded wasn't immediately available late Sunday and they were not identified by name.
"A couple of them were in very serious condition on their arrival at the hospital," Lendvay said. He added that five of the wounded were rushed by paramedics for emergency care and the sixth by private vehicle.
He said authorities have been unable to immediately determine whether there was any relationship among the wounded, noting none could be immediately interviewed though authorities hoped to do so later.
"It's hard to say if they are all associated or not," he added.
Lendvay spoke near the scene Sunday afternoon even as the game was in progress, saying investigators had cordoned off the area but fans who had cars parked in the area could expect an escort to their vehicles so they could leave unhindered after play was over.
Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, told local media he was aware of crime problems in the neighborhood and urged a greater law enforcement presence there.
"In talking to the sheriff's department; they are going to beef up patrols ...We have a crime issue," Gaffney said. "Every other week and every other month out there, it's too much."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also said in a statement that he had reached out to Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, offering any state resources that the city may need.
Tapachula, Oct 22 (AP/UNB) — A growing caravan of Honduran migrants streamed through southern Mexico on Sunday heading toward the United States, after making an end-run around Mexican agents who briefly blocked them at the Guatemalan border.
They received help at every turn from sympathetic Mexicans who offered food, water and clothing. Hundreds of locals driving pickups, vans and cargo trucks stopped to let them clamber aboard.
Besi Jaqueline Lopez of the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula carried a stuffed polar bear in a winter cap that seemed out of place in the tropical heat. It's the favorite — and only — toy of her two daughters, 4-year-old Victoria and 3-year-old Elisabeth, who trudged beside her gleaming with sweat.
A business administration graduate, Lopez said she couldn't find work back home and hopes to reach the United States, but would stay in Mexico if she could find employment here.
"My goal is to find work for a better future for my daughters," she said.
In dozens of interviews along the journey, they have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption in Honduras. The caravan is unlike previous mass migrations for its unprecedented large numbers, and because it largely began spontaneously through word of mouth.
Guatemala's migration agency confirmed that another group of about 1,000 migrants crossed into the country from Honduras on Sunday.
After praising Mexico for its no-nonsense response when police at a southern border bridge pushed the migrants back with riot shields and pepper spray, U.S. President Donald Trump again hammered Democratic Party opponents over what he apparently sees as a winning issue for Republicans a little over two weeks ahead of midterm elections.
After blaming the Democrats for "weak laws" on immigration a few days earlier, Trump said via Twitter: "The Caravans are a disgrace to the Democrat party. Change the immigration laws NOW!"
"Full efforts are being made to stop the onslaught of illegal aliens from crossing our Souther (sic) Border," he said in another tweet. "People have to apply for asylum in Mexico first, and if they fail to do that, the U.S. will turn them away. The courts are asking the U.S. to do things that are not doable!"
Hundreds of migrants from the caravan did just that — applied for refugee status in Mexico in the southern city of Ciudad Hidalgo. By Sunday evening, the Interior department reported that it had received more than 1,000 requests.
But a far bigger group forded the Suchiate River from Guatemala to the Mexican side individually and dozens at a time, and resumed the trek at first light, marching 10 abreast on the highway.
"Si se pudo!" they chanted in Spanish — "Yes, we did!"
The throng grew even larger than when the migrants arrived at the border bridge, swelling overnight to 5,000.
It was not immediately clear where the additional travelers came from since about 2,000 had been gathered on the Mexican side Saturday night. But people have been joining and leaving the caravan daily, some moving at their own pace and strung out in a series of columns.
Their destination Sunday was the city of Tapachula in Chiapas state. Under a blazing sun, small groups of 20 to 30 paused to rest in the shade of trees on the side of the road, and by afternoon the caravan had evolved into long lines of walkers straggling for miles.
Jesus Valdivia, of Tuxtla Chico, Mexico, was one of the many who pulled his pickup truck over to let 10 or even 20 migrants hop in at a time, sometimes causing vehicles' springs to groan under the weight.
"You have to help the next person. Today it's for them, tomorrow for us," Valdivia said, adding that he was getting a valuable gift from those he helped: "From them we learn to value what they do not have."
Passing freight trucks were quickly boarded by dozens of migrants, and straining tuk-tuks carried as many as a half-dozen.
Brenda Sanchez of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who rode in Valdivia's truck with three nephews ages 10, 11 and 19, expressed gratitude to "God and the Mexicans who have helped us."
She even had kind words for Mexican police: "We are very grateful to them because even though they closed the doors to us (at the border), they are coming behind us taking care of us."
Federal police monitored the caravan's progress from a helicopter and had a few units escorting it. Outside Tapachula, about 500 black-uniformed officers briefly gathered along the highway on buses and in patrol units, but they said their orders were to maintain traffic and not to stop the caravan. They moved on toward the city before the caravan reached them.
As the migrants passed through villages on the outskirts of Ciudad Hidalgo, locals applauded, shouted encouragement and donated supplies.
Maria Teresa Orellana, a resident of Lorenzo, handed out sandals. "It's solidarity," she said. "They're our brothers."
Mexico's Interior Department said in a statement that federal and Chiapas state authorities were providing assistance to migrants, including legal counseling for those who applied for asylum. It released a video showing workers doling out food, medicine and medical treatment.
In comments to reporters after a rally in Elko, Nevada, on Saturday night, Trump said of Mexico's response: "I just want to say, on behalf of the American public, that we appreciate what Mexico is doing. They've really stepped up, and it will not be forgotten."
Trump also repeated: "I will seal off the border before (the migrants) come into this country, and I'll bring out our military, not our reserves."
Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he was suggesting to Trump that the United States, Canada and Mexico seek an agreement to invest in development in Central America and southern Mexico, which is home to many of that country's poor.
"In this way we confront the phenomenon of migration, because he who leaves his town does not leave for pleasure but out of necessity," said Lopez Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1.
Mexican authorities had refused to allow the caravan mass entry from Guatemala, instead accepting small groups to process asylum requests and handing out some 45-day visitor permits. An estimated 1,500 were still on the Guatemalan side of the Suchiate, hoping to enter legally.
But police could do little if anything in the face of the throngs who avoided the official entry point and crossed the notoriously porous border elsewhere.
Migrants marching north Sunday said they gave up on Mexico because the application process was too slow, and most wanted to continue to the United States anyway.
"We're warriors, we got to get to the place we got to get to. We're gonna keep on going and we're not gonna stop," Luis Puerto, 39, of Colon, Honduras, said in English.
For Puerto, that place is North Carolina, where he has a wife and two daughters. He said he was recently deported from the United States after a brush with the law that he did not specify.
"We are going to get to the border of the U.S.," he said. "I am not going to stop. I don't care if I die."