Charter flight carrying South Koreans from Wuhan arrives home; Europeans evacuated from virus-hit city

A chartered Boeing 747-400 plane carrying carrying evacuated South Koreans from Wuhan arriving at Gimpo International Airport in Gimpo, South Korea, on Jan 31, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS, AFP) - A charter flight carrying 368 South Koreans from Wuhan arrived home on Friday (Jan 31) as tensions simmered around quarantine centres where they will be isolated, a plan vehemently opposed by nearby residents.

The first of up to four flights planned to evacuate South Koreans from the epicentre of a virus outbreak in China landed at the Gimpo International Airport west of Seoul around 8am after an unexpected half-day delay because China only approved one flight.

The government had said none of the evacuees had any symptoms before departure, but one person could not board the plane due to fever after a final check at Wuhan airport, while 18 were sent to hospitals immediately upon arrival, vice health minister Kim Gang-lip said.

"There were different screening standards between China and us, and we conducted another check aboard the plane and put those who were showing symptoms in separate space on the second floor of the plane," Mr Kim told a briefing.

"The other 350 will be sent to temporary lodging facilities where medical staff will provide daily quarantine and medical assistance for 14 days under thorough control without going out or receiving guests."

The government will isolate the evacuees for at least two weeks at two facilities in Asan and Jincheon, cities about 80km south of capital Seoul, to rule out any symptoms.

They will be housed in buildings normally used as training centres for government officials.

The plan triggered a strong backlash among nearby residents, with some people throwing eggs and expletives on Thursday at senior officials who visited to try to defuse their anger.

Several hundred police officers were on hand at the facilities in Asan and Jincheon.

In Asan, there was no sign of a major rally on Friday morning, but one angry protestor ripped apart a banner put up by a local civic group to welcome the evacuees.

Meanwhile, a jet carrying around 200 French citizens flew out of Wuhan on Friday, according to AFP journalists on board the flight.

The French military aircraft is bound for southern France, where the passengers will undergo a 14-day quarantine, in case they are carrying the new coronavirus.

Similarly, a plane carrying 83 British and 27 foreign nationals flew out on Friday from Wuhan, the British government said.

The civilian aircraft chartered by the Foreign Office left Wuhan at 9.45am, the government said in a notice on its website. It is due to arrive at 1pm in Britain later on Friday, before continuing on to Spain, where the home countries of European Union citizens will take responsibility for the remaining passengers.

"We know how distressing the situation has been for those waiting to leave," Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, according to the notice. "We have been working round the clock to clear the way for a safe departure."

The United States and Japan have already carried out airlifts from Wuhan for their citizens.

A second US flight is planned in the coming days.

Australia and New Zealand are among others organising similar operations.

The European Commission has said it is planning a flight to evacuate more European nationals.

Beijing has taken extreme steps to stop the spread of the virus, effectively quarantining more than 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, including thousands of foreigners.

The World Health Organisation on Thursday declared a global emergency over the virus, which has also spread to more than 15 other countries.

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