US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) canceled a deportation flight to west Africa because of allegations of brutality by Ice agents in the treatment of the deportees, the agency has said in a statement.

a airplane that is sitting on a runway at an airport: Photograph: David Ryder/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: David Ryder/Getty Images

The statement emailed to the Guardian and the cancellation of the deportation flight, so that would-be deportees can be interviewed as witnesses, marks a dramatic change in tone by the agency, which has hitherto deflected and denied multiple earlier allegations of human rights abuses.

Related: New claims of migrant abuse as Ice defies Biden to continue deportations

The change suggests that the newly confirmed secretary for homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, may have begun to exert control over what some critics have described as a “rogue agency”.

A plane carrying Cameroonian, Angolan and Congolese asylum seekers was due to take off from Alexandria, Louisiana, at 3pm on Wednesday, but was canceled with a few minutes to spare.

Video: Mayorkas becomes first Latino and immigrant to lead Department of Homeland Security (USA TODAY)


Two days before the flight, a coalition of immigration advocacy groups published affidavits by Cameroonian detainees saying they had been assaulted by Ice officers and forced to put their fingerprints on documents authorising their own deportation to a country where they believed they risked prison, torture or extrajudicial killing.

a plane sitting on top of a mountain: Deportation flights had been stepped up under the Trump administration but Alejandro Mayorkas, the new homeland security secretary, appears to be asserting his authority. © Photograph: David Ryder/Getty Images Deportation flights had been stepped up under the Trump administration but Alejandro Mayorkas, the new homeland security secretary, appears to be asserting his authority.

Ice was accused of similar abuse last October, but denied the claims and did not change its policy of accelerated deportation of African and Caribbean asylum seekers. On Thursday, an Ice spokesperson signaled a change in stance.

“Ice takes all allegations of detainee abuse with the utmost seriousness. Allegations of misconduct by Ice employees or contractors are reported to Ice’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and are reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG),” the spokesperson said.

Related: US Ice officers 'used torture to make Africans sign own deportation orders'

“Ice has the utmost confidence in the professionalism of our workforce and their adherence to agency policy,” the statement said. “However, Ice has decided to cancel the [February 3] flight to allow any potential victims or witnesses an opportunity to be interviewed, and will conduct an agency review of recent use-of-force reports related to individuals on this flight, and issue any additional guidance or training as deemed necessary.”

“Ice is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody,” the spokesperson said, claiming that the agency “provides safe, humane, and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals detained in its custody”.

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