US federal forces to start conditional pullout from Portland

Los Angeles (AFP) –


President Donald Trump's administration on Wednesday agreed to a deal to defuse weeks of clashes in the US city of Portland with the withdrawal of federal forces whose presence enraged protesters, but the timing remained in dispute.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said the forces -- whose deployment was seen by many as part of Trump's law-and-order strategy for re-election -- would begin their phased pullout on Thursday.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf indicated, however, that the officers will withdraw only if there are guarantees that local police can ensure the federal courthouse will be secured.

Trump's administration earlier this month sent the federal tactical teams, many wearing combat-like gear, to intervene in the western US city after weeks of protests against racism and police brutality left the federal courthouse and other buildings marred with graffiti and broken windows.

But their deployment only served to inflame the situation, especially following video footage of protesters being snatched off the street by the federal forces and put into unmarked cars.

"After my discussions with (Vice President Mike) Pence and others, the federal government has agreed to withdraw federal officers from Portland," Brown tweeted Wednesday.

"They have acted as an occupying force & brought violence. Starting tomorrow, all Customs and Border Protection & ICE officers will leave downtown Portland."

In his statement, Wolf said he and Brown had "agreed to a joint plan to end the violent activity in Portland directed at federal properties and law enforcement officers."

- 'Increased violence and vandalism' -

"That plan includes a robust presence of Oregon State Police in downtown Portland," he said, adding that "state and local law enforcement will begin securing properties and streets, especially those surrounding federal properties, that have been under nightly attack."

Wolf set no timeline for a pullout, stressing that the "current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland" would remain until being assured that federal properties "will no longer be attacked" in the city.

Hours before the announcement, Trump insisted that the federal forces were needed in Portland, saying local officials needed to "secure their city soon."

"You hear all sorts of reports about us leaving," Trump said. "We're not leaving until they've secured their city. We told the governor, we told the mayor: 'Secure your city.' If they don't secure their city soon, we have no choice -- we're going to have to go in and clean it out."

Attorney General Bill Barr was grilled by US lawmakers Tuesday over the Portland operation, strongly denying any attempt to stifle peaceful protests, or that the deployment aimed to boost Trump's reelection prospects.

In parallel with the contested crackdown in Portland, the administration has sent in federal agents to supplement local law enforcement in several US cities facing a rise in gun crime: Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque -- compounding public anger over the situation in Portland.

Wednesday's announcement on Portland came as Trump's administration said it was expanding the controversial "surge" of federal agents to three more US cities -- Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.

In a statement, Barr said all three Democratic-run cities "have seen disturbing increases in violent crime, particularly homicides."

As part of so-called "Operation Legend," just under 100 agents will head to the three Great Lakes cities, according to the Justice Department, which said homicides were up 13 percent in Cleveland, 31 percent in Detroit and 85 percent in Milwaukee since the start of the year.

The announcement on Portland came a day after officials in the neighboring state of Washington said that federal police sent to the city of Seattle last week had left the area.

Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler welcomed the withdrawal of the officers from his city saying in a tweet on Wednesday that their presence had sown fear in the community.

"Federal agents nearly killed a demonstrator, and their presence has led to increased violence and vandalism in our downtown core," he said.

"The Governor and I agree: Oregon resources, expertise, and values are sufficient to manage Oregon issues," he added in another tweet.