- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

The commander of the Arizona National Guard told state legislators yesterday that the soldiers who left an observation post on the U.S.-Mexico border after spotting armed men approaching their position made “exactly, 100 percent” the right decision.

Maj. Gen. David P. Rataczak, adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard, told the state House Committee on Homeland Security and Property Rights that the soldiers did not abandon or flee their post but “relocated to another site” in accordance with the “mission we were given by the president.”

“We believe that based on what happened that this was a chance encounter with drug smugglers working their way back to Mexico,” Gen. Rataczak said. “We don’t know how many men there were and we don’t know how many of them were armed. But our guardsmen followed procedures to the letter of the law.”

Rep. Ray Barnes, a Republican, asked the general why National Guard troops were sent to the border if they could not engage armed drug smugglers.

“If you’re not allowed to do anything to stop criminal aliens, what’s the reason you’re there in the first place?” he asked.

Gen. Rataczak said that although the troops were armed and authorized to use force in self-defense, they determined they were not in imminent danger and retreated to call for help. The Guard troops were assigned along the border as part of a contingent of more than 6,000 National Guard soldiers sent by President Bush to support the Border Patrol.

The four soldiers at the site were members of an entry-identification team, assigned to monitor major illegal-alien and drug-smuggling corridors. No shots were exchanged, and no one was injured in the incident, which occurred Jan. 3 shortly after 11 p.m. near Sasabe, Ariz., about 70 miles southwest of Tucson.

The guardsmen spotted the men with their night-vision equipment and confirmed they were carrying rifles.

Gen. Rataczak said one of the soldiers confronted one of the armed suspects at a distance of about 50 yards and chambered a round into his M-16, but did not point the weapon at him. He said the alien carried what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle but did not point it at the soldier.

He said the guardsmen at the post, who have since been given commendations, then were ordered to relocate to a safer location by a noncommissioned officer at the site. The Border Patrol was called and responded 16 minutes later, he said.

“We don’t know who they were, but the Border Patrol tracked them back into Mexico,” Gen. Rataczak said. “Had the Border Patrol responded sooner, they might have apprehended these people, but we do not touch, detain, arrest or transport anyone” under existing operational procedures.

Several Border Patrol field agents have said the armed men could have been a scouting party for drug smugglers or might have been testing the National Guard’s response to a cross-border intrusion — an observation denied by Gen. Rataczak.

The National Guard troops have been deployed along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border as part of Mr. Bush’s $760 million Operation Jump Start. They have been deployed from California to Texas to upgrade border security and give the Border Patrol time to recruit, hire and train 6,000 new agents by the end of 2008.

The troops are not empowered to get involved in law-enforcement duties.

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