China flies citizens home to virus-hit Wuhan

©Agence France-Presse

A Xiamen Airlines plane flew 73 passengers from Bangkok back to Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak

Beijing (AFP) - China has flown two planeloads of its citizens back home to Hubei, the locked-down province at the centre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak where they were greeted by authorities in full-body protective suits.

A Xiamen Airlines charter flight from Bangkok touched down late Friday in the provincial capital Wuhan, where the infection is believed to have originated in a market that sold wild animals.

Health authorities in white, full-body protective gear stood by the cabin door as the plane's 73 passengers disembarked, smiling through face masks and waving to news photographers. 

A second Xiamen flight landed soon afterwards carrying Hubei residents from Kota Kinabalu, a popular coastal tourist destination in Malaysia. 

China's foreign ministry said earlier on Friday that the country would bring Wuhan residents back from overseas "as soon as possible" due to "the practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas".

The move came after a more than 30 airlines worldwide announced they were halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of the epidemic.

China's aviation agency had said there were 117 nationals from Hubei province in Bangkok and 100 in Kota Kinabalu who are "willing to take the chartered flights back to Wuhan as soon as possible".

This was despite the fact that Wuhan and surrounding cities have been locked down by authorities for more than a week, effectively trapping more than 50 million people in their homes after a near-blanket transport ban.

Nearly all of the 259 people killed in the outbreak so far were in Hubei.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed in Wuhan. AFP reporters saw long queues, with some patients saying they lined up for two days to see a doctor.

The charter flights prompted a flurry of discussion on Chinese social media.

"These people probably don't want to go back," said one, while another questioned if residents should be returned to Hubei if they were not infected.

China has advised its citizens to postpone trips abroad and cancelled overseas group tours.

Several countries including the United States, Germany, Britain and Japan have urged their citizens to avoid travel there.

The US has also declared a national emergency, temporarily barring entry to foreigners who had been in China within the past two weeks. 

Neighbouring Myanmar turned a plane back to China on Friday with most passengers still on board -- including French and American citizens —- after one man suspected of contracting the coronavirus was taken to hospital.