SIERRA VISTA - The U.S. Border Patrol is requiring a private volunteer border watch group to remove political messages attached to thousands of small flags placed on the border fence in Cochise County.

About 16,000 flags and five banners were attached to the fence by members of the American Border Patrol group in early July to celebrate Independence Day and to urge the government to finish building 700 miles of double fencing.

On July 5, the banners vanished.

"Despite an initial denial, an investigation by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office found that the U.S. Border Patrol had removed them," said Glenn Spencer, president of Hereford-based American Border Patrol.

Border Patrol spokeswoman Colleen Agle told the Sierra Vista Herald that messages or banners can't be placed on federal property without prior approval or authorization. She said the group didn't have that permission.

"The group was asked previously to remove any political messages from the fence, and they placed them back up," Agle said. "The flags carry political messages, which cannot be displayed on federal property."

Spencer later retrieved the banners from the Border Patrol's Naco station. Spencer says he was told that the banners could not be posted on the fence due to a new policy, but that the flags could remain on display.

Each flag contains a message from an individual American, and they've stayed on the fence ever since.

But last week, the Border Patrol told Spencer that his group must remove all the tags with the messages that are attached to the flags.