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US defence chief opposes use of Insurrection Act to quell unrest

'I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,' US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said, two days after President Donald Trump said he could do so to call up the army to quash protests.

FILE: US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper exits after an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on 20 December 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he opposed invoking a rarely used law to deploy military to quell nationwide protests over police brutality against African Americans.

"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper said, two days after President Donald Trump said he could do so to call up the army to quash protests.

"I've always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best-suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations," Esper said.

"The option to use active duty forces should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," he told reporters in the Pentagon.

"We are not in one of those situations now."

On Monday, Trump warned that he was "mobilising all available federal resources — civilian and military" against the violent protests that have convulsed America since the killing nine days ago of unarmed African American George Floyd by Minnesota police.

Trump said the country had been "gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others."

If the cities and states could not regain control, Trump said, "then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them."

Asked at the time whether Trump had invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to call up the regular army, the Pentagon said no.

But it also said that it had taken a preliminary step towards that, bringing 1,600 active duty military police to the Washington area "as a prudent planning measure."

Esper also defended his actions and those of Pentagon Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley at the White House Monday.

Troops were ordered to fire smoke bombs and pepper balls - painful projectiles that release a chemical irritant - to clear a crowd of peaceful demonstrators from a park so Trump could stand for photographs in front of a nearby church.

Esper and Milley were accused by former top defence officials and opposition Democrats of taking part in a political act by Trump, breaking traditional principles that the US military remain apolitical.

"I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes," said former Joint Chiefs chair retired admiral Mike Mullen on Tuesday.

"I was not aware of law enforcement's plans for the park," Esper said.

"I did know we were going to the church. I was not aware a photo-op was happening," he said.

"I do everything I can to stay apolitical and stay out of situations that may appear political. And sometimes I'm successful at doing that and sometimes I'm not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics."