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(2nd LD) FM, envoys discuss measures to ensure safety of S.Koreans in Middle East

All News 18:48 January 08, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; ADDS details about changes in travel warning for Iran in para 5-6)
By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Jan. 8 (Yonhap) -- Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha instructed the ministry and ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries Wednesday to take active measures to ensure the safety of South Koreans in the region amid sharply rising tensions in the wake of Iran's missile attacks on American forces in Iraq.

Fear of a full-blown war is rising in the region as Iran fired over a dozen ballistic missiles against at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S.-led coalition personnel early Wednesday in retaliation for last week's U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha presides over a teleconference in Seoul with heads of South Korean missions in the Middle East on Jan. 8, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Kang held an emergency video conference call with South Korea's ambassadors to Iran, Iraq and Israel, and instructed them to work closely together and with related government agencies to ensure the safety of South Koreans living or staying there, the ministry said in a release after the meeting.

She also instructed the officials to work around the clock for prompt actions, in case of any contingencies, as tensions are escalating in the region, the ministry said.

The ministry issued a "yellow" travel warning for parts of Iran, effective immediately, after a meeting of a task force team set up early this week to deal with the crisis. The yellow warning, calling for travel restraint, is the second level of the four-level travel alert system .

The "red" travel warning, which calls for withdrawal, in place for three other regions in Iran, will be maintained, it added. Travel to Iraq has been banned since 2007, but some 1,570 South Koreans live there on special government permits, mainly for business reasons.

Yet a withdrawal of South Koreans from Iraq is not being considered, a ministry official said, largely citing no immediate impact on or imminent danger present to the people there.

"We are not at the stage where we would consider a withdrawal (of South Koreans) as for now," the official said. "We're closely monitoring the situation and will devise measures stage by stage in consideration of various possibilities."

The government also held a separate interagency meeting of officials from related ministries, in which possible contingency plans are believed to have been discussed.

Most of the South Koreans in Iraq live in Karbala and Bismayah, south of Baghdad, and are long distances away from the targeted Iraqi bases in al-Asad and Erbil, located in western and northern Iraq, respectively, the official said. They are mostly employees of large construction firms involved in big facility projects.

Lee Sang-jin, deputy foreign minister for overseas Koreans and consular affairs, arrived in Jordan earlier in the day and will be in charge of on-site handling of the situation. He plans to hold a consular meeting in Amman on Thursday.

There are about 250 South Korean nationals in Iran, 700 in Israel, 10,930 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and 150 in Lebanon, according to the ministry's website.

This Reuters image taken from a video shot on Jan. 8, 2020, shows an explosion following missiles landing at what is believed to be Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq. (Yonhap)


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