Gulf countries announce measures to cut links with Iran as coronavirus cases rise in Middle East

A vistor wears a mask during the Arab Health Exhibition in Dubai, UAE in January. Gulf countries announced new measures on Tuesday to cut links with Iran to prevent coronavirus spreading. (Reuters/File photo)
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Updated 26 February 2020

Gulf countries announce measures to cut links with Iran as coronavirus cases rise in Middle East

  • The UAE suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran
  • Kuwait has canceled celebrations for national holidays on Tuesday and Wednesday

DUBAI: Gulf countries announced new measures on Tuesday to cut links with Iran to prevent coronavirus spreading after the confirmation of 20 new cases, all of them people returning from the Islamic republic.

The UAE suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran after Kuwait and Bahrain announced the additional cases of COVID-19.

Over the past two days, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman have reported 29 cases of the novel coronavirus among people returning from pilgrimages to Iran, which is battling the deadliest outbreak outside China and where the death toll has reached 16.

Bahrain also announced 15 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number affected in the kingdom to 23 — including six Saudi women — after some of the people had returned from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah in the UAE.

The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority “suspended all passenger flights and cargo to and from Iran starting today and for one week,” a statement carried by the official WAM news agency said, adding that the ban could be extended.

Also on Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted that the UAE was ready to provide all forms of support to help China combat the spread of the virus.

Shortly after, the Bahraini authorities said citizens were banned from traveling to Iran “until further notice.”

In Kuwait, three new cases were recorded among Kuwaiti men who had been under quarantine after returning from Iran. The new cases bring the total number of infected there to nine.

Oman, which on Monday reported its first cases of coronavirus in two Omani women who had returned from Iran, reported an additional two cases.

Muscat was making arrangements to bring back its citizens from the Islamic republic, the foreign ministry said, a day after it suspended all flights to and from Iran.

Oman also announced that it will suspend the import and export of goods from Iran from Wednesday.

The three countries have large Shiite Muslim populations who frequently travel to Iran to visit holy shrines.

The UAE has already announced 13 coronavirus cases, all foreigners, including an Iranian couple who had traveled from Iran.

Kuwait has canceled celebrations for national holidays on Tuesday and Wednesday and also scrapped all sports events to counter the spread of the disease.

The country's civil aviation authority said it had suspended all flights with Singapore and Japan a day after suspended flights with South Korea, Iran, Thailand, Italy and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraq shut schools and universities on Tuesday and told citizens to avoid mass gatherings, as it rushed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from its neighbour Iran, hit by what appears to be the worst outbreak outside of China.

An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus in Iraq's northern Kirkuk province. They were the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease, a day after an Iranian theology student in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf became Iraq's first confirmed case.

Measures to curb the spread could have major political repercussions in Iraq, where around 500 people have been killed in anti-government street demonstrations since last year. A populist cleric called off plans on Tuesday for a "million-man" demonstration.

The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from Iran and China, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.

On Tuesday the government urged Iraqis to avoid all public gatherings and announced a range of measures to curb them. Gatherings were banned outright in Najaf, one of the most heavily-visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Schools and universities were shut, for 10 days in Najaf and indefinitely in Kirkuk. The autonomous northern Kurdish region cancelled all education until after a March 20 holiday.

(With AFP and Reuters)


Turkey-backed fighters retaliate against Syria-allied troops

Updated 22 min 24 sec ago

Turkey-backed fighters retaliate against Syria-allied troops

  • Renewed violence has undermined an already shaky cease-fire in place since March

BEIRUT: Syrian opposition groups lobbed hundreds of missiles and artillery rockets at government posts in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, in retaliation for a deadly attack that killed dozens of their fighters a day earlier.
The renewed violence has undermined an already shaky cease-fire in place since March that aimed to quell military operations and government troop advances in the overcrowded rebel enclave.
The Turkey-backed groups, operating under the umbrella of the National Front for Liberation, fired hundreds of artillery rounds and missiles since late Monday at government posts in territories adjacent to areas they control in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
A spokesman for the NFL, Naji Al-Mustafa, said the rebel’s military retaliation targeted and killed Russian officers in southern Idlib, as well as Syrian soldiers working in the area.
The report could not be independently verified and there was no immediate comment from Russia or Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded hundreds of projectiles lobbed by opposition fighters at nearly 20 government posts in different locations in southern Idlib, western Aleppo and the coastal province of Latakia. The Observatory said there were casualties but had no details.
Monday’s strike was the deadliest in Idlib since the Turkish-Russian-brokered truce there came into effect in March, raising fears that the truce could further fray. Some 1 million people were displaced by the last offensive inside the already packed enclave, home to over 3 million.
The airstrike on a rebel training camp near the border with Turkey killed more than 50 Turkish-backed fighters, according to one opposition spokesman, and wounded nearly as many, in one of the heaviest blows to the opposition’s strongest groups. The Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, put the toll at 78 fighters dead and nearly 90 wounded.
The camp, operated by Faylaq Al-Sham, an NFL faction, was hosting training sessions for new recruits. The NFL said a “large number” of fighters were killed, but declined to give details. It vowed retaliation and blamed Russia for the attack.
US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said the escalation in Idlib in violation of the March cease-fire deal is “dangerous” and threatens to prolong the conflict and deepen the Syrian people’s suffering. Jeffrey said the UN-led political process is the only way to peace and stability in Syria.
“By continuing their quest for a military victory, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are threatening the stability of the surrounding region,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “It is time for the Assad regime and its allies to end their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people.”
Russia and Turkey, although they support opposite sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, have worked together to maintain a cease-fire in the last enclave of Syria’s rebels. But the attack comes as relations between the two countries have shown signs of strain over Turkey’s increased military involvement in a region stretching from Syria to the Caucasus and the Mediterranean.