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The head of U.S. forces in East Africa declared a public health emergency for American troops and contractors based in Djibouti on Friday, a move he said would give him greater authority to manage the risk of coronavirus following a sharp spike in cases in the strategically located nation on the Horn of Africa.

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Gen. Michael D. Turello said the measures apply to all 5,000 U.S. personnel—troops, Defense Department civilians and contractors—at military installations in the country, including U.S. personnel working at the nation’s seaport, which is perched next to one of the world’s most important shipping routes.

The declaration is the first on the continent for the U.S. military, which has most of its troops in West Africa. There is currently only one confirmed infection of a U.S. serviceman, according to U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. But Djibouti has registered 986 cases, according to the health ministry, the highest per capita infection rate in Africa.
“Combating Covid-19 is my top priority,” said Gen. Turello. “By declaring a public health emergency, it keeps our forces, and those of our host nation partner, as healthy and as safe as possible.”Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is a key launchpad for U.S. regional military operations, including against al-Qaeda-linked groups in Yemen and Somalia, where the Trump administration has dramatically expanded airstrikes to combat the leadership of the Al Shabaab insurgency.

Infections across the continent have been lower than Western nations but rose some 50% last week to reach 26,000. The World Health Organization has warned that the continent could be the next “epicenter of the outbreak.”

The U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa said the measures, which include social distancing and restrictions on movements are aimed at keeping the forces safe and healthy. Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for AFRICOM says that the measures are precautionary and wouldn’t deter counter-terrorism operations.“While AFRICOM is taking Covid-19 very seriously, our operations and activities continue in support of our African partners,” he says.

The measures also affect U.S. defense contractors and civilian workers at the port of Djibouti. The country’s largest port is operated by China, which also maintains a military base, its first in a foreign country, opened in 2017. China’s base is about 8 miles from the American base, but U.S. officials have long suspected that Beijing’s intention is to monitor the sensitive U.S. operations there.

The Pentagon, which been scaling back troops on the continent recently has taken precautionary measures amid the spreading virus on the continent. In February, the Africa command canceled multinational military exercises set for March and April.

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