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(5th LD) S. Korea to send evacuation plane to Wuhan Thursday night

All News 17:14 January 30, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout)
By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will send one chartered flight to the coronavirus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday night to bring home its citizens from the locked-down city, a foreign ministry official said.

The Korean Air flight is expected to depart at 8:45 p.m. from Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, as part of a government plan to evacuate around 700 South Koreans from the epicenter of the deadly contagious virus.

The announced plan constitutes an hourslong delay and a reduction in flights from Seoul's original plan to bring home the citizens on Thursday and Friday.

Two Korean Air planes were initially scheduled to take off at 10 a.m. and at noon, respectively, as part of the initial evacuation plan. Two more flights were also set to fly to the city on Friday.

In a joint media briefing, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Beijing has given approval for one of the chartered planes and that it was in talks with the Chinese side to finalize the flight operation, including the time of its departure.

"China informed us last night that it would allow the operation of one plane first," she said after a meeting presided over by President Moon Jae-in.

"We believe that they are working in a way in which they give the go-ahead for one plane and then receive requests sequentially, since it has been receiving many other requests (for permission) from the U.S. and Japan for provisional flights," Kang said.

Under the adjusted plan, about 360 South Koreans will likely be able to board the plane back home and follow-up plans to transport the rest of the people will have to be discussed with Chinese authorities, a foreign ministry official said.

The official did not give details about the reason for the delay. But observers said that Beijing might be uncooperative as it worries about having foreign countries scrambling to carry out evacuation missions on its soil.

Sources say that the Chinese government refused to allow two Japanese planes to fly to Wuhan in one day and also turned down U.S. flight schedules multiple times before finally approving them.

"We are consulting with the Chinese government to make sure that our citizens staying in Wuhan can return home as soon as possible according to the changed schedule," the official said.

The government also plans to continue talks with Beijing over ways to take care of South Koreans remaining in Wuhan, mostly because they have families there who hold Chinese citizenship. China said earlier it won't allow its own citizens to join the evacuation.

He added that there could be a possibility that only one of the two planes could fly on the day due to the delay but emphasized that the number of people on the evacuation list will not change.

The South Koreans consulate general in Wuhan notified the Koreans of the change of the changed flight schedule at about 1 a.m. (local time) and asked them to wait until further notice.

(5th LD) S. Korea to send evacuation plane to Wuhan Thursday night - 1

The Korean residents in Wuhan had been told to gather at an airport in the city about five hours before the initial flight schedule.

South Korean officials have been in consultations with China on logistical details regarding the emergency transfer of its citizens.

On Tuesday, Seoul announced the plan to airlift its nationals out of Wuhan, after Beijing placed the city under lockdown, suspending flights and transportation there and in its surrounding regions amid the fast spread of the disease.

Seoul has been going all-out to stem the spread of the pneumonia-like illness that has killed 170 and infected over 7,700 in China alone.

South Korea has reported four confirmed cases of the virus infection since early last week, with no fatalities so far. Health authorities are tracking 2,991 individuals who flew from Wuhan between Jan. 14 and 23, considering the disease's 14-day incubation period.

The government said the evacuated people will be put into isolation at two different public facilities in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, and Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, in the country's central region.

But the quarantine plan has drawn strong opposition from the residents in the areas worried about potential infection. Some residents in Asan staged sit-in protests, blaming the government for making the decision without their consent.

Scuffles broke out late Wednesday as some angry residents in Jincheon threw water bottles and paper cups at government officials, including Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip, who had come to brief them on the plan and to ask for their understanding.

Of about 700 people who have applied for the transfer, those with no symptoms will be transported first, and they will be subject to a quarantine check right before and after the flights, and will stay at the facilities for at least 14 days, according to the government.

elly@yna.co.kr
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