French commander: Extremists in Africa try to exploit virus

FILE - In this May 19, 2017 file photo, a French soldier stands inside a military helicopter during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the troops of Operation Barkhane, Islamic extremists in West Africa's Sahel region are trying to exploit COVID-19 to gain followers but haven't had much success, according to the commander of the French military's Operation Barkhane there. (Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP, File)
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Islamic extremists in West Africa’s Sahel region are trying to exploit COVID-19 to gain followers but haven’t had much success, according to the commander of the French military’s Operation Barkhane there.

The coronavirus has had little impact on counterterrorism operations by the more than 5,000 French soldiers in the arid region just below the vast Sahara desert, Gen. Pascal Facon told reporters Tuesday.

COVID-19 “doesn’t change anything and everyone is very focused on the way the mission goes,” he said, adding that they have learned to adapt accordingly. “Much has been done to implement individual and collective measures to ensure that this constraint is as minimal as possible.”

He attributed the very few cases among French soldiers to constant vigilance and a wide distribution in the field that minimizes the risk of large-scale virus transmission.

But cases are rising in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Health authorities have confirmed more than 120 COVID-19 deaths in the countries where Barkhane is active, with more than 2,100 confirmed cases.

Experts have said that limited testing capacity in remote and volatile parts of Africa means health authorities aren’t able to track the virus well.

As for the extremists, Facon said “they exploited it as propaganda by saying it was punishment.”

He said Barkhane has recorded substantial progress in the fight against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, though he wouldn’t give specific details.

“What I can simply tell you is that attrition is substantial, that the blows to the enemy command system are severe blows, and that these capabilities are considerably diminished,” he said.

Though jihadists are stepping up attacks, especially in the border region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Facon attributed it to growing pressure from successful military operations there.

Barkhane troops are working in the border region with soldiers of the G5 Sahel force, a coalition of five Sahel countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

The French army some months ago announced increased focus, and sent more soldiers to the area to neutralize extremists from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Despite the successes, two French Legionnaires who were members of Barkhane in Mali have died in the past four days, according to French authorities.

Facon honoured the soldiers, saying their deaths “show the bitterness of the fight, but not the revival of activity.”