Troops switch tactics on Belgium's streets to guard against attacks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Soldiers patrolling Belgium’s streets will switch tactics to protect themselves against militant attacks, moving around more often and changing routes, the commander of land forces said.

Uniformed officers had become a target for militants across Europe, General Marc Thys told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.

Commanders were now reviewing their missions, minimizing the amount of time troops stand still, he said.

“It is a lot easier to fire on a fixed target than on a mobile target,” Thys added.

Armed combat troops and police protecting sites in France, Belgium and Britain have been the target of multiple attacks since their deployment after Islamist attacks in Paris in early 2015.

“Everybody who wears a uniform, attracts people who want to do bad things,” said Thys. “We are trained for it so we know how to react so it is better that they attack maybe a soldier than a civilian.”

Thys, 55, who took over the role as commander of Belgium’s land forces this year, has had to balance budgets torn between security operations at home and international commitments in Afghanistan, Mali and eastern Europe.

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Belgium has repeatedly extended the mission on home soil, maintaining 1,200 soldiers on the streets of its main cities, with the country set at its second-highest threat level.

As what was meant to be a temporary measure drags into its third year, Thys said the military was planning for the “Operation Vigilant Guardian” through 2020.

“We do our worst case planning,” Thys said. “The threat will not go away easily: that’s for sure.”

On Friday, soldiers patrolling in Brussels’ city center shot dead an attacker after he came at them with a knife, shouting Allahu Akbar (God is greatest), the second attack on soldiers in Belgium this summer.

Neighbouring France has seen over a dozen attacks on soldiers and police in two-and-a-half years, most recently in August when a man drove a car into a group of soldiers in a Parisian suburb.

In Britain, a man assaulted police officers with a four-foot sword outside Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace on Friday.

Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alissa de Carbonnel