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Inauguration rehearsal halted, US Capitol briefly locks down after false alarm

Fire in a homeless encampment sparks fears, temporary evacuation, as Washington remains on edge ahead of Biden’s swearing-in

People evacuate from the West Front of the US Capitol, due to a false alarm during a rehearsal for the 59th presidential inauguration, in Washington, January 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
People evacuate from the West Front of the US Capitol, due to a false alarm during a rehearsal for the 59th presidential inauguration, in Washington, January 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The US Capitol complex temporarily locked down Monday, during a rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, after a fire in a homeless encampment about a mile away sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security fears.

But law enforcement officials said there was no threat to the public and the fire was not believed to be a threat to the inauguration.

The evacuation of some participants and the lockdown were ordered by the acting chief of Capitol Police, in an abundance of caution, officials said. District of Columbia firefighters responded and put out the fire.

Biden was not participating in the rehearsal.

Participants were ushered from the West Front of the Capitol. Those who had gathered for a walk-through, including a military band, were directed to head indoors, and were moved in the direction of a secure location inside the Capitol complex.

People involved in the rehearsal said security officials yelled, “This is not a drill.”

According to a CBS correspondent, Hill staffers received the following message: “All buildings within the Capitol Complex: External security threat, no entry or exit is permitted, stay away from exterior windows, doors. If outside, seek cover.”

Members of a military band evacuate from the West Front of the US Capitol, during a rehearsal the 59th presidential inauguration, in Washington, January 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The riot on January 6 at the US Capitol by supporters of US President Donald Trump has prompted anxiety and massive security concerns about the inauguration on Wednesday.

Secret Service increased security in and around the Capitol a week early in preparation, and the city center is essentially on lockdown with streets blocked, high fencing installed, and tens of thousands of National Guard and other law enforcement officers stationed around the area.

US law enforcement agencies are screening National Guard members to make sure they do not pose a security risk during the inauguration, a four-star general said in comments broadcast Sunday. Around 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to Washington.

The security measures will make Biden’s swearing-in a muted affair, unlike any previous inauguration. Where Washington is normally packed with hundreds of thousands of supporters, celebrities, socialites, and lobbyists, the US capital is eerily quiet ahead of Biden’s big day, which promises to be a mostly televised celebration of democracy.

The pandemic will further dampen the event, with the crowd thinned by social distancing requirements and required to wear masks. On Tuesday, Biden and Harris will lead virtual commemorations across the country for the 400,000 Americans killed by COVID-19.

Other virtual events will include an inauguration day “Parade Across America,” an online 50-state tour of speakers, artists, and performers.

The main event on Wednesday night stars John Legend, Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake, Ant Clemons, the Foo Fighters, and Demi Lovato.

Breaking with tradition, Trump has refused to participate in the ceremonial peaceful transfer of power and will leave Washington for Florida hours before the inauguration.

Vice President Mike Pence will attend, along with former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter, 96, is staying home due to the pandemic.

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