China flies citizens home to virus-hit Wuhan

BEIJING: China has flown two planeloads of its citizens back home to Hubei, the locked-down province at the centre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak where they were greeted by authorities in full-body protective suits.

A Xiamen Airlines charter flight from Bangkok touched down late Friday (Jan 31) in the provincial capital Wuhan, where the infection is believed to have originated in a market that sold wild animals.

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READ: China to fly overseas citizens back to virus-hit Hubei province

Health authorities in white, full-body protective gear stood by the cabin door as the plane's 73 passengers disembarked, smiling through face masks and waving to news photographers.

China said it would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas 'as soon as possible' due to 'practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas'. (Photo: AFP/STR)

A second Xiamen flight landed soon afterwards carrying Hubei residents from Kota Kinabalu, a popular coastal tourist destination in Malaysia.

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READ: Chinese tourists desert Thai resort as Wuhan coronavirus spreads

China's foreign ministry said earlier on Friday that the country would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas "as soon as possible" due to "the practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas".

The move came after a more than 30 airlines worldwide announced they were halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of the epidemic.

China's aviation agency had said there were 117 nationals from Hubei province in Bangkok and 100 in Kota Kinabalu who are "willing to take the chartered flights back to Wuhan as soon as possible".

China sent two planes to bring citizens back from Bangkok and Kota Kinabalu. (Photo: AFP/STR)

This was despite the fact that Wuhan and surrounding cities have been locked down by authorities for more than a week, effectively trapping more than 50 million people in their homes after a near-blanket transport ban.

Nearly all of the 259 people killed in the outbreak so far were in Hubei.

READ: Wuhan coronavirus death toll rises to 259 in China with 46 new fatalities

Hospitals have been overwhelmed in Wuhan. AFP reporters saw long queues, with some patients saying they lined up for two days to see a doctor.

The charter flights prompted a flurry of discussion on Chinese social media.

"These people probably don't want to go back," said one, while another questioned if residents should be returned to Hubei if they were not infected.

China has advised its citizens to postpone trips abroad and cancelled overseas group tours.

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