Coronavirus: Taiwan says China 'stalling' over repatriation flights

A passenger wearing a protective face mask pushes a trolley as he arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport on Feb 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan on Friday (Feb 14) accused China of dragging its feet over the evacuation of citizens stranded in the midst of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, the latest spat between the two neighbours.

Multiple countries have successfully arranged evacuation flights for nationals stuck in Hubei province, where the epidemic is at its most intense and deadly.

But nearly 1,000 Taiwanese have been waiting for the best part of two weeks for a flight out.

On Wednesday, Chinese state media quoted local officials accusing Taiwan's government of "repeatedly delaying" their return.

The reports said "political manipulation" was behind the delay but gave no concrete details.

For days, Taiwanese officials gave few clues on what was behind the hold-up as officials tried to broker an agreement behind the scenes.

But on Friday, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung ended that silence, saying Beijing had "refused to cooperate".

"The Chinese side has used all kinds of reasons to stall and refused our plans and recommendations. We deeply regret this," he told reporters.

Taiwanese stuck in Wuhan said they have no idea what was causing the delays.

"Most people who are still in Wuhan and Hubei are very anxious and worried and we want to go back to Taiwan," Mr Hsiao Yung-jui, head of the Wuhan Taiwan Enterprises Association, told AFP.

Taiwan did manage to fly 247 people from Wuhan on mainland-owned China Eastern Airlines flight on Feb 3.

But how that evacuation was carried out caused disagreements.

Chen said China had promised to prioritise "vulnerable people" and take appropriate epidemic preventative measures.

But one person who had a fever boarded the plane, while the passenger list did not prioritise the elderly, children and people with chronic disease, he said.

The relationship between the two sides is complicated by the fact that Beijing views Taiwanese people as its own citizens, not as foreign nationals.

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China's Communist Party regards Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to seize it one day, by force if necessary.

Relations have worsened since President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected in 2016 as her government considers the island as a de facto sovereign nation and rejects Beijing's "one China" stance.

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