The head of the United Nations has urged a global cease-fire. So has the Pope. Yet violence keeps battering swaths of Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe as governments struggle to fight both insurgents and the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said recently during a virtual speech.
The Islamic State is calling on loyalists everywhere to capitalize on the chaos, according to its media channels. The Taliban are launching major attacks in Afghanistan while handing out masks, gloves and soap.
In conflict zones across the globe, the threat of airstrikes, ambushes and roadside bombs is blocking health-care workers from patients, medical experts say, and national security forces — newly tasked with enforcing strict lockdowns — are stretched thin.
“If you were a rebel leader right now, you’d probably find fewer troops against you,” said Roudabeh Kishi, research director at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks international unrest.
Some armed groups, though, have taken steps toward peace in Colombia, Cameroon and the Philippines, signaling a desire to stop fighting as the contagion spreads.
Extremist media outlets, meanwhile, are framing the coronavirus as a “punishment from God,” said Emily Estelle, senior analyst at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Islamic State and al-Qaida recruiters bill themselves as the antidote.
“This is something they can point to,” she said, “if people are unhappy with the government.”
— East and West Africa: Extremists push forward. From Mali in the west to Somalia in the east, extremism continues to claim lives across Africa, erupting in deadly spurts as dozens of countries seal their borders, close their airports and focus on the public health menace.
Soldiers and police officers throughout the continent are now juggling two jobs: defend their country and oversee a crop of stay-at-home orders.
In the vast Lake Chad region, West African armies have long clashed with Boko Haram and an offshoot with ties to the Islamic State. Tensions over movement-restricting rules are simmering in crowded cities, analysts say, as the extremist grip tightens on the countryside.
Days after the north-central African nation of Chad reported its first coronavirus case, Boko Haram fighters struck an army camp in the marshy hinterlands with unusual force, killing 92 soldiers.
“Never in our history have we lost so many men” in a single ambush, Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno said Tuesday after touring the scene of scorched trucks.
Around the same time, militants with rocket-propelled grenades killed at least 50 soldiers in neighboring Nigeria.
West of that battle is the world’s fastest-growing Islamist insurgency in Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger, where fighters linked to another Islamic State affiliate and al-Qaida stage routine attacks in an effort to grab territory.
At least 29 Malian soldiers died in a March ambush, and gunmen killed more than 10 people at a market this week in Burkina Faso.
In East Africa, al-Shabab has carried out suicide attacks in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and assassinated a governor in the autonomous region of Puntland.
An extremist militia in Mozambique flew the Islamic States’s black flag last month in its most daring offensive yet, taking northern market towns and torching government offices.
— Yemen: Five-year conflict intensities. The war that has displaced millions and shattered health-care systems in Yemen is only getting worse as the coronavirus spreads: Fighting has intensified in at least four provinces. Half of all medical facilities are closed, according to Oxfam International, and access to clean water is scarce.
U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths will try to join the warring parties on a video call in the coming days to work out a plan to halt all air, ground and sea attacks, Reuters reported Thursday.
The five-year conflict in the Middle East’s poorest nation has pitted Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis against a United States-backed coalition of Sunni Muslim nations, which is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
— Afghanistan: Taliban on attack despite deal. Regular attacks also imperil prospects for peace in Afghanistan, where the government and the Taliban keep clashing as the country counts a steady uptick of coronavirus cases.
Fighting picked up after the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February, with militants attacking government outposts in the country’s north.
“We can’t completely stop our attacks,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, blaming the government for “compelling” them.
But if the situation worsens, the Taliban may stand down.
“God forbid,” Mujahid said, “if the virus spreads in the country, then we could stop fighting to control the situation.”
Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have launched efforts to curb the virus. Police in Kabul are enforcing a lockdown, and the Taliban have dispatched teams around the territory it controls to pass out masks, gloves and soap.
Millions of lives are at risk if the warring sides don’t find a way to work together during the pandemic, Human Rights Watched warned Monday in a statement.
— Libya: Fighting ‘unhinged’ as focus shifts to virus. The risk is similar in Libya, where hostilities are surging despite calls from the United Nations, the United States and a number of European and Arab countries for combatants to engage in a “humanitarian pause.”
Khalifa Hifter’s year-long offensive on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, has triggered the worst violence the North African oil producer has seen since 2011, killing more than 350 civilians.
His forces fired rockets at several residential areas last week, analysts say, and social media in Libya is full of grief.
“Nobody could sleep last night,” wrote Montaha Nattah, who lives in Tripoli. “I’ve never felt so close to death as I am now.”
The conflict has decimated Libya’s health system. Health facilities and ambulances have endured more than 60 attacks over the past year. A lack of specialized medical staff and medical equipment hinders the country’s ability to address disease — let alone the coronavirus outbreak.
Fighters on both sides appear to be taking advantage of the international community’s gaze on the pandemic, said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
“Right now, because the world is indeed being consumed with the whole COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, “the behaviors we see in Libya are even more unhinged and more cynical.”
— Ukraine: Frontline fighters in face masks. As the pandemic grips the world’s attention, eastern Ukraine’s six-year war, which broke out when Russian-backed separatists declared independence, injures and kills those on the front lines at its usual clip.
One big difference these days: Ukrainian armed forces are wearing face masks in the trenches, according to local media.
Civilians and combatants are wounded practically every day in sprays of bullets and shells. A soldier died last week.
The Ukrainian president has vowed to end the war, and encouraging developments have surfaced, including prisoner exchanges. But progress drags on the thorniest issues at the heart of the conflict.
— Peace during the pandemic? The pandemic has encouraged some combatants to hold fire — if only for a few weeks.
In parts of the Philippines, concerns for public health appear to have motivated a temporary truce: The Communist Party of the Philippines has ordered its armed branch, the New People’s Army, to halt fighting rebel groups until April 15.
“The cease-fire is a “gesture toward national unity and based on humanitarian principles in the context of the serious public emergency,” the party said in a statement.
In Colombia, the left-wing National Liberation Army, which has battled government forces since the ’60s, pledged to observe a cease-fire for the month of April.
“Let’s hope they do it,” said Miguel Ceballos, the Colombian High Commissioner of Peace. “If they do it, they are helping to save lives.”
In the central African nation of Cameroon, where armed separatists have fought to establish their own country for three years, one rebel group has agreed to a pause as a “gesture of goodwill,” according to the BBC.
The Southern Cameroons Defence Forces is trying to get other militias on board to mixed results, according to the BBC.
In Syria, a tenuous cease-fire has taken effect in the volatile northwest, which is home to the last rebel-held town in the country. Russia and Turkey agreed to put their weapons down in March.
Doing otherwise “would have dire implications for Syria and for the global response to COVID-19 at large,” said Geir Pedersen, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria.
But truces tend to fall apart in a country where war has raged for a decade. Aid workers are concerned violence could explode at any moment.
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The Washington Post’s Max Bearak in Nairobi, Robyn Dixon in Moscow and Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas contributed to this report.