(LEAD) S. Korea seeks to arrange 2 chartered flights to bring home citizens from virus-hit Italy
(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 2, 6-8)
SEOUL, March 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is seeking to arrange two chartered flights to bring home hundreds of its citizens from Italy, which has been hit hard by the new coronavirus, a senior foreign ministry official said Friday.
Concerns over their safety have been rising, as Italy has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, with its death toll topping 3,400 as of Thursday -- a tally higher than that of China, where the virus first emerged in December.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 570 people have expressed their wish to return to Korea.
"We currently think that two flights are needed, and we are still in consultations over specifics," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Seoul started to look for chartered flights only recently, as its citizens in Italy had initially sought to find flight tickets on their own -- an effort that has become difficult due to other European countries' moves to tighten border controls and travel restrictions.
Reports said that the country's hospitals are running short on beds, medical equipment and even staff due to the growing number of patients.
According to Italy's health authorities, the total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 41,035 with 3,405 fatalities as of 6 p.m. Thursday.
South Korea has thus far run government-arranged flights to evacuate citizens from the Chinese central city of Wuhan, a cruise ship off Yokohama near Tokyo and most recently from Tehran.
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