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11/27/99 -- 10:35 PM

U.N. rights official blasts U.S. border policy, Mexican army

MEXICO CITY (AP) - The United States is endangering the lives of illegal immigrants by forcing them to use more dangerous border crossings, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Saturday.

Robinson criticized the U.S. policy, which involves heavy patrolling of traditional immigration routes, forcing illegal immigrants to cross through deserts or mountains.

"I do intend to take this issue up with the authorities of the United States,'' she said at a press conference on the final day of a five-day fact-finding tour of Mexico.

Migrant rights advocates say Operation Gatekeeper, a 5-year-old increase of Border Patrol agents along the southern California border, has forced immigrants to take more dangerous routes to avoid the patrol. Some 455 people have died since the crackdown began.

However, Robinson's harshest criticism was saved for the Mexican army, which currently has tens of thousands of troops patrolling civilian communities in several states, including Chiapas, which she visited Friday.

"The military presence is very heavy and oppressive in some instances, especially in indigenous communities,'' Robinson told a news conference at the U.N. headquarters in Mexico City. "I believe the very extensive role the military is playing could be reduced, especially in relation to police functions.''

Robinson also slammed what she called widespread impunity by government officials and soldiers accused of abuse, and came out strongly against the use of military courts to investigate allegations of rights violations by soldiers.

"If a military member violates the rights of civilians, that should go before civilian courts,'' she said. "If it is handled by a military court, that is viewed as a kind of impunity.''

Earlier in Robinson's tour of Mexico - the result of a government invitation - she met President Ernesto Zedillo and said he recognized Mexico has serious human rights problems. Mexican officials signed a letter of understanding on rights promotion.