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Lebanon starts flights to bring back citizens stranded abroad

Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Mohamed Fehmi, holds a press conference on coronavirus (Covid-19) in Beirut, Lebanon on March 22, 2020 [Hussam Chbaro / Anadolu Agency]
Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Mohamed Fehmi, holds a press conference on coronavirus (Covid-19) in Beirut, Lebanon on March 22, 2020 [Hussam Chbaro / Anadolu Agency]

Several flights carrying Lebanese stranded abroad by coronavirus lockdowns began arriving in Beirut on Sunday, part of a trial run to see whether thousands looking to come home can be safely repatriated without worsening the country’s outbreak.

Their return became a charged issue after powerful parliament speaker Nabih Berri threatened to suspend support for the government if it did not act quickly and other top figures urged immediate action.

The government’s expat policy, which had initially stipulated that citizens could not return until after 12 April when the extended national shutdown is set to end, drew criticism from political leaders.

Lebanon’s crippling financial crisis including tight capital controls has complicated the plight of Lebanese stuck abroad, with tough restrictions on accessing cash. The government has pledged to help ease bank transfers for students overseas.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, speaking to reporters at Beirut international airport on Sunday, said about 21,000 Lebanese had registered for flights back to Lebanon.

Four flights on Sunday, from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Lagos and Abidjan, will return about 400 passengers, according to airport sources. They will be tested for coronavirus at the airport and quarantined at hotels while awaiting results.

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“Hopefully this cloud, the cloud that is the health situation with corona, passes quickly and infections are minimal for Lebanese whether at home or abroad,” said Diab.

Lebanon has recorded 527 coronavirus cases and 17 deaths. Health officials warn that many facilities are ill-equipped to take on a major outbreak of the pandemic amid a months-long dollar shortage that has disrupted supply chains.

Lebanon said on Sunday it was tightening lockdown measures further to contain viral contagion, restricting the movement of cars, trucks and motorcycles to three assigned days per week. It has also shut most businesses and imposed an overnight curfew.

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