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Trump ‘wall’ in desolate stretch of New Mexico has some asking: Why here?

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SANTA TERESA, New Mexico/ WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The 18-foot-tall steel slats extend 20 miles across the rugged Chihuahuan desert in southern New Mexico, cutting through high sand dunes and brush.

New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen next to vehicle barriers in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

On a recent day, there were none of the usual signs of migrant traffic – no discarded water bottles, clothes or trash. The radio on a Border Patrol SUV driving along the divide was mostly silent.

To many locals and public officials familiar with the area, the $74-million structure just west of tiny Santa Teresa marks a surprising priority in the Trump administration’s efforts to build a wall against illegal immigration, drugs and human trafficking.

“Most of us here say why spend that money? Just dead money going into the middle of the desert,” said Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association, a nonprofit representing industries in southern New Mexico.

The barrier, completed last year, provides an early peek at the administration’s efforts to provide the layer of national security President Donald Trump’s supporters demand. Although the fence does not break new ground – it replaces less formidable vehicle barriers – it is the longest section erected to date under Trump, who has said generally that he is starting in the most important places.

During more than two dozen interviews by Reuters reporters with the project’s opponents and advocates, few described the Santa Teresa stretch as having been a hub of illegal activity. Residents said they had found evidence of drug smuggling, such as packages of marijuana and other drugs dumped in the desert, and had seen individuals or small groups of migrants cross from time to time.

During a recent tour along the Santa Teresa-area wall – or fence, as some call it – a U.S. Border Patrol official explained to a Reuters reporter why the project was necessary.

“This was an extremely popular place for both drugs and people,” said supervisory agent Joe Romero, referring to the stretch next to New Mexico Highway 9 where the rust-brown slats rise above mesquite trees and soaptree yuccas.

The agency would not provide figures for migrant apprehensions by the Santa Teresa station before and after the wall was built.

Romero confirmed the Santa Teresa area was not typically a destination for the large groups of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States. That is the group Trump has mainly been targeting.

But Romero said the Santa Teresa fence allows the border patrol to police the area with fewer agents and shift manpower to nearby urban and semi-urban areas where the most migrants are now illegally crossing. With agents tied up by large numbers of asylum seekers and their humanitarian needs, the under-staffed agency needs the extra personnel in areas where smugglers are taking advantage of these distractions, Romero said.

A ‘STATE OF EMERGENCY’

Trump’s proposed “great wall” extending along the border has come to define his presidency, just as Trump Tower has defined his real estate brand. He cites “an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people” and says the only way to put a stop to it is a hard barrier along much of the 2,000 mile (3,200 km) southwest border.

Around 650 miles (1,046 km) of barriers already exist.

The problem for the president is that while his Department of Homeland Security selects possible building sites, including Santa Teresa, the administration generally needs Congress to appropriate the money. And Congress has balked at the billions Trump wants.

On Feb. 15, the president declared a national emergency, which he said would allow him to seize federal funds already appropriated for other programs and use them to build the wall.

On Thursday, the Senate voted to terminate that declaration, setting up an avowed veto by Trump that will be difficult for lawmakers to override.

Amid the political warfare, Santa Teresa is the first significant project to materialize under the president’s watch.

Critics in Congress, including some Republicans, say the project was about politics, not protection.

“They’re sending a message – they’re not trying to meet operational security needs,” said U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, of politicians who favored the project.

Others say expanding on existing barriers provides a relatively quick, easy way for the administration to argue that Trump is delivering on his 2016 campaign promise.

Gabriel Vasquez, a Democrat who serves on the city council of nearby Las Cruces, noted that the relatively small population in the Santa Teresa area meant the project would meet little public resistance. And the federal government already owned most of the land around the border there so did not have to spend time and money buying it from private ranchers or other landholders.

At least one other site for wall-building also is proposed in a desolate location: According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration plans a 31-mile barrier adjacent to a bombing range in the Arizona desert.

Democrat Tom Udall, the other U.S. senator from New Mexico, said he pressed federal officials to justify the Santa Teresa project before construction started.

“‘What is the pressure on this particular area, why are you doing that?’” he recalled asking. “And they said, ‘Oh in 2012 there were 300 people and in 2017 there were 500 that they know that crossed” illegally, Udall said.

By comparison, more than 300,000 migrants were apprehended in 2017 across the entire southern border.

Instead of building large, expensive barriers in remote areas, Udall and Heinrich say it makes more sense to invest federal dollars in high-tech detection equipment there.

They also want to improve infrastructure and inspections at the major ports-of-entry, including El Paso (about 15 miles southeast of Santa Teresa), where experts say the bulk of drug smuggling occurs.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner from 2014-2017, suggested that the emphasis on erecting physical barriers was recent.

During his tenure, Kerlikowske said, agents at southwest border stations spoke of the need for a big bag of tools: Predator drones, boats, helicopter support, remote video, ground sensors, research and development of tunnel detection and agents on horseback, ATVs and motorcycles.

“Border Patrol never mentioned walls” then, he said.

DEFENDERS OF THE WALL

Locally, however, the Santa Teresa fence has some defenders.

Former U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, now the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said that ranchers on the border with Mexico want a wall on their properties, believing it will not only stop immigrants from interfering with their livestock operations but also protect their families from violent drug cartels.

FILE PHOTO: New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Pearce, an early Trump supporter, added, “I have always felt that the wall by itself has got to be supplemented” with a range of border enforcement tools, from more agents to technology.

Rancher Chip Johns, who said he has found bales of drugs dropped by fleeing smugglers and who sleeps with a gun by his bed, said he felt safer with the fence running along his 250,000-acre property. He hopes it marks just the beginning of a more extensive project.

To stop the wall after 20 miles, allowing drug smugglers to cross where it ends, would be “ridiculous,” he said.

Andrew Hay reported from Santa Teresa, New Mexico and Richard Cowan from Washington; Additional reporting by Jane Ross and Lucy Nicholson; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Exit poll has Thai opposition winning most seats but not enough for government

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BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai voters flocked to the polls on Sunday for the first election since a 2014 coup, and an exit poll indicated the populist party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra would win the most seats, but not enough to form a government.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) prepares to vote in the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The race has pitted military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seeking to retain power and stay on as prime minister against a “democratic front” led by the Pheu Thai Party loyal to Thaksin.

Thailand has been under direct military rule since then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected pro-Thaksin government in 2014. Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin was thrown out by the army in 2006 and has lived in self-exile since 2008.

Unofficial results of Thailand’s first general election since 2011, from the Election Commission, were not due for several hours.

However, immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) the Thai PBS channel aired an exit poll by Thai research center Super Poll that indicated Pheu Thai would win 163 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.

The same exit poll indicated junta chief’s Palang Pracharat would win 96 seats, the establishment Democrat Party 77 seats, the Bhumjaithai Party 59 seats and the new Future Forward Party 40 seats.

If correct, the projection would mean that Pheu Thai would not have enough votes to form a majority government in its hoped-for “democratic front” with other parties.

Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat party also could not form a government on its own, but it would have a better chance to form a coalition needed to elect a prime minister due to junta-written electoral rules that favor it.

Turnout was estimated to be high as 80 percent among the 51.4 million Thais eligible to vote, the Election Commission said about an hour before the polls closed.

Critics have said a new, junta-written electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party from returning to power.

Voters are choosing the 500-seat House of Representatives. The lower house of parliament and an upper house Senate, which is appointed entirely by the ruling junta, will select the next government.

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, but the past 15 years have seen crippling street protests both by his opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Thousands attend NZ vigil, rally to fight racism, remember Christchurch victims

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CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in New Zealand’s cities on Sunday to protest racism and remember the 50 Muslims killed by a gunman in Christchurch and as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a national remembrance service to be held later this week.

People attend a vigil for victims of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

About 15,000 turned out for an evening vigil in Christchurch in a park near the Al Noor mosque, where a suspected white supremacist killed more than 40 of the victims. Several more people were killed at the nearby Linwood mosque.

Many non-Muslim women wore headscarves at the vigil, some made by members of Christchurch’s Muslim community, to show their support for those of Islamic faith as they had at similar events last week.

Ardern said on Sunday that a national remembrance service would be held on March 29 to honor the victims, most of whom were migrants or refugees.

“The service will be a chance to once again show that New Zealanders are compassionate, inclusive and diverse, and that we will protect those values,” Ardern said in a statement.

The prime minister has been praised for her leadership following the attack. She swiftly moved to denounce the incident as terrorism, toughen gun laws and express national solidarity with the victims and their families.

The vigil started with an Islamic prayer, followed by a reading of the names of the victims, which included students from the nearby Cashmere High School.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can,” Okirano Tilaia, one of the school’s pupils, told the crowd. “Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can.”

Earlier in the day more than 1,000 people marched in a rally against racism in central Auckland, carrying “Migrant lives matters” and “Refugees welcome here,” placards.

Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s 4.8-million population, a 2013 census showed, most of whom were born overseas.

As New Zealand continued to mourn and ask questions about how such an attack could have happened in the peaceful Pacific nation, the victims’ families spoke about their losses.

Shahadat Hossain, whose brother Mojammel Haque was killed in the attack, arrived in New Zealand on Saturday to bring his brother’s body back to Bangladesh.

“I can’t describe how I felt when I saw my brother’s lifeless body,” he told Reuters. “I was devastated.”

Farid Ahmed, who was at the Al Noor mosque when the shooting took place, escaped but his wife, Husna, was killed. On Sunday, he went door-to-door, thanking his neighbors for their support.

    “They came running… they were crying, they were in tears,” he said of his neighbors when they found out that Husna had died.

“That was a wonderful support and expression of love, and I am feeling that I should also take the opportunity to say to them that I also love them.”

Reporting by Jill Gralow Natasha Howitt, Charlotte Greenfield in Christchurch, Ruma Paul in Dhaka, James Redmayne and Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Almost 400 people winched from stricken cruise liner off Norway

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OSLO (Reuters) – Rescue services had airlifted 397 people to safety from a luxury cruise liner with engine trouble off the coast of Norway by Sunday morning and were preparing to tow the vessel to a nearby port.

The Viking Sky, with 1,373 passengers and crew on board, sent out a mayday signal on Saturday as it drifted towards land in the Norwegian Sea.

The ship was carrying 915 passengers, of whom “a large number” were from the United States and Britain, according to the rescue services.

Some 17 injured passengers had been taken to hospital, a local rescue coordinator told a news conference early on Sunday, while others suffered minor cuts and bruises.

One was taken to St. Olav’s Hospital in the town of Trondheim, which is central Norway’s most advanced medical facility. Others were taken to local hospitals in the region.

“Many have also been traumatized by the experience and need care when they arrive on shore,” the Norwegian Red Cross said in a statement.

The airlift had gone on through the night. The ship has been able to restart three of its four engines on Sunday morning but still needed assistance.

“The evacuation continues at the request of the vessel … they need tugboats to get to port,” rescue service spokesman Per Fjeld said, adding that the plan was to bring the Viking Sky to the town of Molde.

Rescue services have begun to attach lines to the ship from tugboats to begin towing it towards the port.

BROKEN WINDOWS

Stormy weather conditions had improved in the early hours of Sunday, with winds blowing at 14 meters per second, down from 24 meters per second previously, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The wind speeds are expected to fall further during Sunday.

Images and film posted by passengers on social media showed furniture sliding around as the vessel drifted in waves of up to eight meters (26 feet), and passengers earlier described the ordeal.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“We were having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos. The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun,” American passenger John Curry told public broadcaster NRK on Saturday.

The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs.

Viking Cruises, which owns the ship, on Saturday said the safety of passengers was its top priority. The company was not immediately available for further comment on Sunday.

Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Jane Merriman/Keith Weir

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