Exclusive: Pentagon orders halt to overseas movement for U.S. forces for up to 60 days over coronavirus

US

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Defense Secretary Mark Esper has issued a stop movement order to the U.S. military halting all travel and movement abroad for up to 60 days in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks, Esper told Reuters on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper walks out to welcome Britain’s Secretary of State of Defence Ben Wallace before their meeting at Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Esper said in an interview that the order applied to all U.S. forces, civilian personnel and families, but noted that there would be some exceptions.

“The purpose is to make sure that we’re not bringing the virus back home, infecting others, that we’re not spreading it around the military,” Esper said.

The measure is by far the most sweeping to date and will affect forces around the world. Esper said one exception to the order would be the drawdown under way in Afghanistan, which will continue.

The United States has said it is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal with the Taliban last month.

A full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces would occur within 14 months of the deal getting signed, if the Taliban holds up its end of the deal.

“That (stop movement order) should not impact that,” Esper said of the withdrawal.

The U.S. military said earlier on Wednesday it was also elevating its health-related security level at bases worldwide because of the spread of the coronavirus, as it acknowledged the persistent growth in the rate of infections across the force.

The Pentagon said it was raising its health protection condition, or HPCON, to Charlie, its second highest level, which suggests sustained community transmission.

The Pentagon announced 53 new cases of infected service members on Wednesday, bringing the worldwide total to 227.

“Our curve is not flattening. And that’s why we went to HPCON Charlie today, which includes restrictions on large gatherings and includes additional social distancing,” Air Force Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, the joint staff surgeon, told a news conference.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney

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