Guatemala police fire tear gas, disperse US-bound migrant caravan: AFP

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Vado Hondo (Guatemala) (AFP)

Guatemalan police fired tear gas Sunday to disperse thousands of Honduran migrants trying to make it to the United States on foot, with soldiers beating back a group trying to push through barricades, AFP journalists witnessed.

Security forces surrounded the migrant caravan on a road in the southeastern Guatemalan town of Vado Hondo, near the border with Honduras.

Amid the deafening explosions of gas and smoke cannisters, some 1,000 of the migrants turned back, while hundreds of others fled into nearby mountains. Many dropped their sparse belongings in their haste to get out of harm's way.

Some who tried to break through a fence were beaten back by uniformed soldiers kitted out with clubs and plastic shields.

A health official from the region, who did not give her name, said several migrants were struck and injured.

Saying they are seeking to escape poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes, the migrants set out to cross Guatemala and Mexico to the United States on foot, an arduous journey of thousands of kilometers.

"They have no heart, we are risking our lives," lamented Dixon Vazquez, 29, who begged the Guatemalan authorities to let the group continue.

"There is no work in Honduras," he said.

"We will continue trying until they allow us to pass. Just make way for us because we're not going to stay in Guatemala, our goal is to get to the United States," added Vazquez, who said he had left his wife behind in Honduras.

- 'No work, nor food' -

"We have no work nor food, so I decided to go to the United States," said Dania Hinestrosa, a 23-year-old domestic worker travelling with her daughter. She had left behind another child of three years and twins aged four.

But Guatemala migration head Guillermo Diaz insisted Saturday the group "will not be able to pass" and urged the migrants to turn back.

Some of the police at Vado Hondo Sunday were carrying firearms.

Migration authorities said about 1,000 people have already been returned to the Honduras border, including 163 children.

A first group of men, women and children -- many wearing masks due to the Covid-19 pandemic -- pushed their way Friday past police on the border at El Florido, an AFP correspondent said.

A police official said the migrants were allowed to enter Guatemala because there were many families with children. They said officers feared tear gas could cause casualties.

Border agents asked the migrants for their papers -- and proof of negative coronavirus tests -- but appeared to let many through who did not meet those requirements.

Officials said at least 6,000 people had arrived in Vado Hondo out of some 9,000 who have left Honduras in recent days.

They have been stuck at Vado Hondo since Saturday night, their progress slowed by the mountainous terrain.

- 'Rule of law' -

The Guatemalan government in a statement denounced what it said was a violation of its national sovereignty, and urged Honduras to "contain the massive departure of its inhabitants, through permanent preventive actions."

The migrants are hoping for a welcome in Joe Biden's America after years of tough anti-immigrant policies under Donald Trump, but US authorities have already warned off the group.

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, urged the migrants last week not to "waste your time and money."

The US commitment to the "rule of law and public health" is not affected by the change in administration, he said in a statement.

Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the US to stop north-bound migratory flows.

But all have run up against thousands of US border guards and soldiers under Trump, who has characterized immigrants from Mexico as "rapists" and criminals.

The Mexican government said it would not allow the "illegal entry" of any migrant caravans and has deployed 500 immigration officers to the border states of Chiapas and Tabasco.