(ATTN: UPDATES story with flight departure; ADDS more info, byline; RESTRUCTURES; TRIMS)
By Song Sang-ho and Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Yonhap) -- A third government-chartered plane departed for the new coronavirus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan late Tuesday to evacuate about 170 South Korean citizens and their Chinese spouses and immediate family members.
The flight took off from Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, with a government rapid response team of 12 staffers, including medical and quarantine officials on board.
It is expected to arrive in Wuhan around midnight and return to Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul on Wednesday morning.
Also aboard the Wuhan-bound flight are 16 Chinese nationals in Korea who said they want to return to their homes in Hubei province, where the virus-hit city is located.
The evacuation mission comes less than a fortnight after two flights brought back a total of 701 nationals from the city amid growing fears over the spread of the deadly virus that has sickened more than two dozen people in South Korea.
Kim Gang-lip, deputy head of the central disaster headquarters, said earlier in a press briefing that the government had gained official approval from China for the operation of the flight on Monday.
The flight's arrival back in Seoul on Wednesday remains uncertain as a document verification process for some 70 Chinese family members could take time in addition to quarantine checks at the airport in Wuhan.
Lee Sang-jin, deputy foreign minister leading the quick response team, said before leaving for Wuhan that his team has prepared supporting documents for the families to help them with the verification process.
He added that the consulate general in Wuhan plans to issue emergency passports for about 10 of those who do not have documents at all.
Among the Chinese aboard the plane is a 35-year-old woman from Wuhan who was discharged upon full recovery last week after having tested positive in Korea for the novel coronavirus last month.
This time, the Chinese authorities have given approval for Chinese citizens' trips to South Korea aboard the third evacuation flight, though they did not allow them to board the previous two flights, along with their immediate Korean family members.
South Korea's consulate general in Wuhan has informed the Chinese evacuees of the need to prepare documents, such as marriage certificates, that would prove their relationships with Korean family members.
Upon their arrival in Seoul, the evacuees are to be screened for possible infection and then be transported to temporary accommodation at a language institute of the Joint Forces Military University in Icheon, 80 kilometers south of Seoul, for 14 days, the virus' incubation period.
Amid the mounting dread of the virus that emerged in the central Chinese city in December, South Korea has been beefing up quarantine efforts, as well as its diplomacy to ensure the safety of its citizens in Wuhan and its vicinity.
About 230 of South Korean citizens and their immediate family members, including those of Chinese descent, are currently in Wuhan.
Those who have not applied to use the evacuation flight appear to have decided to stay in China due to their jobs.
The third flight is also delivering protective face masks, medical supplies and other items to the consulate general in Wuhan and citizens in the epicenter of the deadly virus.
China's state media reports said that the death toll of the virus has exceeded 1,000 in China, with the total number of confirmed cases topping 42,000.
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