Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East

A BBC investigation has established that Iraq’s and Lebanon’s first virus cases originated on the flights of Mahan Air, a private company linked to the IRGC. (AP)
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Updated 06 May 2020

Revealed: How rogue Iran airline spread coronavirus through Middle East

  • Mahan Air kept flying after ban on China travel
  • They took first COVID-19 victims to Iraq, Lebanon

LONDON: An Iranian airline under US sanctions flew passengers infected with the coronavirus to Iraq and Lebanon and between Iran and China, fueling the spread of the virus across the Middle East.

Mahan Air, a private company linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), continued flying to China and elsewhere for weeks after Tehran officially barred flights to and from the country on Jan. 31.

The airline lied about these flights taking place, according to an investigation by the BBC. Arrival and departure data from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini and Chinese airports shows flights continued into March.

One flight on Feb. 6 carried 70 Iranian students back from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, before traveling on to Iraq the same day.

Mahan Air claimed it had ended all flights from China after an Iranian student newspaper criticized the Feb. 6 flight. But there were 55 more flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen until Feb. 23, data from commercial flight tracker Flightradar24 confirmed.

The BBC investigation established that Iraq’s and Lebanon’s first virus cases originated on Mahan Air flights.

Planes that went to Tehran from China also made onward travel within 24 hours to Barcelona, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul. Cabin crew raised concerns about their lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and containment measures on planes, but were silenced by the airline.

Mahan Air claims that it was sending humanitarian aid to China and that none of the flights were passenger flights. The data shows this was not the case, and they were confirmed as passenger flights.

Iran’s severe shortage of PPE and medical equipment throughout the coronavirus crisis also makes it extremely unlikely that they were supplying humanitarian aid to China.

Mahan Air is viewed worldwide as a rogue operation. The US designated it a supporter of terrorism in 2011 because of its support for the Quds Force of the IRGC. The airline is banned from Saudi airspace, and has been stripped of its landing rights in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

As the battle to curb the spread of the virus continued on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia reported 1,595 new cases, taking the total to 30,251, and the death toll rose by nine to 200. Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 3.7 million people and killed more than 250,000.

In the UK, there was growing pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his response to the pandemic after Britain overtook Italy to report the highest death toll in Europe.

More than 7,000 deaths were recorded in the week to April 24, raising the total to 32,313.

Only the US, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities.

Nearly 8,000 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the same week, three times higher than a month previously. “These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour opposition MP Liz Kendall.


New Tunisia protests over unemployment

Updated 55 min 34 sec ago

New Tunisia protests over unemployment

  • “Either we get a better life or we all die,” demonstrators, including women, could be heard shouting, according to the reports
  • Nearly a decade after the revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the government has yet to resolve regional inequalities

TUNIS: Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated in the south of the country on Saturday against unemployment and the death of a young man they say was killed by soldiers earlier this week.
Protesters in the town of Remada demanded that President Kais Saied visit their region to discuss their living conditions, witnesses told AFP and videos published online showed.
“Either we get a better life or we all die,” demonstrators, including women, could be heard shouting, according to the reports.
“We want to see President Kais Saied. We voted for him and he must come here to Remada to hear us out and see how our children are being killed,” a woman seen in one video said.
On Tuesday night, a young man suspected of being a smuggler was killed during a police operation in the town, which is close to the border with conflict-riddled Libya.
The defense ministry has opened an investigation to determine if he died when soldiers opened fire on four vehicles transporting smuggled goods from Libya.
Southern Tunisia is one of the country’s most marginalized regions, with above-average unemployment, failing infrastructure and a stunted private sector.
Nearly a decade after the revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the government has yet to resolve regional inequalities.
In recent weeks, protests have also rocked the southern town of Tataouine, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Remada, with demonstrators demanding the government honor a 2017 pledge to invest millions to develop the region and provide jobs to thousands.
Protesters in Tataouine have blocked roads and sought to prevent trucks from accessing the remote El-Kamour pumping station in the desert outside the town.
“The situation in the south of Tunisia is unacceptable,” Saied said in a video published Thursday on the presidency’s official Facebook page.
Saied, who had focused on Tunisia’s disenfranchised youth during his 2019 election campaign, said protests were “legitimate” as long as they respected the law.