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Guatemalan forces clash with migrant caravan, Biden team seeks to halt exodus

Guatemalan forces clash with migrant caravan, Biden team seeks to halt exodus

Guatemalan security forces on Sunday used sticks and teargas to beat back a large migrant caravan bound for the US, just days before the advent of a new US administration, which urged travellers to abandon the journey.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 migrants, including families with young children, have entered Guatemala since Friday, authorities say, fleeing poverty and violence in a region hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes in November.

The caravan was met by about 3,000 Guatemalan security officials mustered in the village of Vado Hondo in eastern Guatemala, leading to the clashes on Sunday morning.

The tough response suggests that Democratic President-elect Joe Biden may initially benefit from the hard-line policies of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority of his administration.

Video footage shared by the Guatemalan government showed hundreds of migrants pressing into a wall of security forces, which used sticks to repel the surge. An unspecified number of people have been injured, authorities said.

During the melee, security forces fired off a tear gas canister and used a stun grenade to disperse the crowd, a Reuters photographer said.

Between Friday and Saturday, Guatemala had sent back almost 1,000 migrants entering from Honduras, the Guatemalan government said, as the caravan tried to advance towards Mexico.

The caravan is likely to come under more pressure in Mexico.

On Saturday evening, the Mexican foreign ministry pressed Central American authorities to halt the caravan's progress, pointing to the need to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Mexico, it said, was committed to orderly and regulated migration and would oppose any form of unauthorised entry.

The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before Biden takes office promising to adopt a more humane approach to migration than Trump.

Still, a Biden transition official, speaking on background, advised people not to make for the US.

“Overcoming the challenges created by the chaotic and cruel policies of the last four years, and those presented by COVID-19, will take time,” said the official.

“In the meantime, the journey to the US remains extraordinarily dangerous, and those in the region should not believe anyone peddling the lie that our border will be open to everyone next month,” the official added.

The incoming administration will work to address the root causes of migration, expand lawful pathways and rethink asylum processing, the official said.

Mexican and Central American authorities have co-ordinated security and public health measures in a bid to deter mass movement of people across the region.