President Donald Trump warned protestors Wednesday against attacking statues of prominent figures as the Pentagon mobilized 400 National Guard troops to protect monuments in the US capital.
"Now they are looking at Jesus Christ, they are looking at George Washington, they are looking at Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson," Trump alleged, saying people damaging monuments could face 10 years in prison.
It's "not going to happen, not going to happen as long as I am here," he said.
Protestors have tried to destroy several statues in Washington in recent nights during Black Lives Matter-related demonstrations.
On Monday night they tried without success to topple a statue of former president Andrew Jackson -- a slave owner who systematically mistreated Native Americans -- that sits just outside the White House, spurring Trump to threaten them with "serious force."
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt requested the deployment of National Guard troops to prevent further attacks on the statues of former presidents, foreign and American war heroes and other figures sprinkled around the US capital.
Bernhardt ordered barriers erected in areas close to the White House to protect public spaces, including the Black Lives Matter Plaza favored by demonstrators near the White House.
"We will protect these places with dispatch and severity!" Bernhardt tweeted.
In the last week, protesters around the country have moved beyond targeting monuments to Civil War-era pro-slavery Confederate leaders to include statues such as one in San Francisco of president Ulysses S. Grant, the general credited with defeating the South in 1865.
Trump's mention of attacking Jesus Christ referred to controversial African American activist Shaun King's provocative tweet on Tuesday.
"I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been," he wrote.
A spokesman for the District of Columbia National Guard, based in the capital, said Wednesday that 400 troops were already prepared to deploy.
But he said they had not yet received a summons from the National Parks Department, the Interior division which oversees the many monuments around Washington.
"We're on standby. Nobody has actually gone out to the monuments yet," Senior Master Sergeant Craig Clapper told AFP.
The troops, who will not be armed with lethal weapons or tear gas or pepper-spray deterrents, could be deployed Wednesday night to back up police if needed.
"But they may not actually need our support," he said.
© Agence France-Presse