AFP

Health virus NATO defence,lead 1 Nisan 2020 - 17:35

NATO warns virus must not hurt defence, with eye on Russia By Damon WAKE ATTENTION - UPDATES, ADDS details of Russian exercises /// Brussels, April 1, 2020 (AFP) - NATO must not allow the coronavirus pandemic to become a security threat, the alliance's chief said Wednesday, warning that Russia or terror groups could take advantage of the crisis. Foreign ministers from the 30-strong North Atlantic Alliance will hold video talks on Thursday to discuss their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 30,000 people in Europe alone. They are expected to issue a joint statement as a show of unity and to send a signal to potential adversaries such as Russia that NATO is still capable and willing to respond to threats. "Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference. Measures to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus have forced NATO allies to trim military exercises, including the huge US-led "Defender 2020". But Stoltenberg insisted this did not mean NATO's ability to defend itself was weakened. "Our operational readiness is maintained, it is not undermined," he said. "We continue to patrol the skies and to defend our borders and we continue our missions and operations not least in the fight against terrorism, because these threats continue to exist." - Russian threat - Stoltenberg pointed to what he warned was increased Russian military activity as proof that NATO needs to be on its guard more than ever during the coronavirus crisis. Jets from NATO air forces have intercepted Russian warplanes several times in recent weeks and alliance naval vessels shadowed seven Russian warships loitering unusually in the North Sea for several days. "We see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia... and we have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea," he said. "Therefore NATO has to continue to patrol our skies with air policing, we need to be present on land, but also in the air and at sea." The Russian defence ministry said their exercises were aimed at practising their emergency response to the spread of viral infections. They were to include drills of quarantine, treatment and disinfection measures, the ministry said in a statement. However, Western diplomats have voiced scepticism about this explanation, particularly given the involvement of Russia's strategic missile forces in the exercises. - Video first - Because of coronavirus restrictions on travel and gatherings, Thursday's ministerial meeting will take place by video link -- a first in NATO's 70-year history. Diplomats say it was vital the meeting went ahead to show that NATO is still working and to send a message to potential hostile actors that they would not be allowed to exploit the coronavirus crisis. Stoltenberg also highlighted NATO efforts to help with the virus response. While the alliance does not have medical equipment of its own to deploy, it is acting as a forum for allies to exchange requests for help, as well as aiding in the transport of supplies. On Wednesday, a military cargo plane took off from Turkey with masks, protective equipment and other medical materials for Italy and Spain, Europe's two worst-affected countries. And a team from the NATO Support and Procurement Agency has joined forces with a start-up in Italy to convert snorkelling masks into emergency ventilator masks. pdw/dc/wdb

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