(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES throughout)
SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to support the voluntary return of its citizens from Israel, officials said Sunday, after Seoul voiced regrets over the country's abrupt enactment of an entry ban against Korean visitors over concerns about the new coronavirus.
On Saturday, Israel barred nearly 180 foreigners, including 130 Koreans, aboard a Korean Air flight from entering the country without any prior notice after they landed in Tel Aviv. They returned to Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Sunday.
The measure came as South Koreans who recently made a group pilgrimage to Israel were found to have been infected with COVID-19, with the number of the country's confirmed cases exceeding 600.
"The foreign ministry is providing active consular assistance for the safety and convenience of our citizens in Israel," a ministry official said.
"It plans to promptly implement related measures, such as supporting the return of citizens, if need be," the official added.
After learning of the entry ban, the foreign ministry contacted the Israeli government and asked it to permit their entry.
Israel, however, rejected the request, forcing some 130 South Koreans to head back to Incheon International Airport on the KE957 plane.
The ministry voiced regret over Israel's measure and demanded that such an incident not occur again, according an official.
Israel explained that its move was unavoidable amid the fast spread of COVID-19 across South Korea, but agreed to cooperate closely with Seoul on relevant steps, the official added. Israel has reported one confirmed COVID-19 case as of Saturday, according to the World Health Organization.
It has prohibited the entry of foreigners from China, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau.
Following the entry ban, reports emerged that about 1,600 South Korean travellers in Israel would face a 14-day self-quarantine. But a foreign ministry official here dismissed the reports as groundless.
According to the health authorities here, 18 South Koreans who recently made a group pilgrimage to Israel have been confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus.
Most of the pilgrims are from North Gyeongsang Province, the southeastern region of the country that has reported the most new cases. They went to Israel on Feb. 8 and returned home on Feb. 16, while their tour guide is living in the capital city of Seoul.
The health authorities said they are closely examining the transmission route of the patients and strengthening the monitoring of all the members to prevent further infections.
Moreover, 37 people from Jeju Island made a separate pilgrimage to Israel from Feb. 11-21, according to the authorities. One of them is being checked for the virus after complaining of symptoms of the coronavirus.
Consequently, the Catholic Times, the Daegu-based religious newspaper that arranged the pilgrimage tour, said it has shut down its offices in Seoul and Daegu and put all its employees under quarantine.
Also, the Catholic diocese of Andong that covers more than half of North Gyeongsang Province has decided to shut down 40 churches under its jurisdiction and suspend all masses, meetings and events for three weeks.
South Korea's health authorities, meanwhile, cautiously said that the patients may have been infected in South Korea.
"There are no confirmed cases from Israel, and it is highly likely that they caught the virus at home and infected each other throughout the trip." the Korea Centers for Disease Control said in a statement.
Some of the patients returned to their workplaces or visited restaurants after returning home. Around 170 people are estimated to have made contact with the patients, the center added.
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