Emergency flights for tens of thousands stranded by virus in S.Asia

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KATHMANDU — Foreign governments on Friday stepped up operations to evacuate tens of thousands of tourists stranded by the coronavirus pandemic in remote locations across South Asia, from Everest base camp to beach hotels in Sri Lanka.

A plane chartered by Berlin took 304 people out of Kathmandu in the first of a series of flights aiming to ferry some 10,000 people from Nepal.

Almost 17,000 tourists are stuck in Sri Lanka while tens of thousands of travellers and expatriates are in India, according to authorities in the two countries.

All have cut or virtually halted international flights over the past week in a bid to halt the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

The plane that left Kathmandu on Friday was carrying Germans and other European nationals, Rajan Pokhrel, director general of Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority, told AFP.

"Other countries are consulting us about evacuating their citizens," he added.

A second German flight was to leave Saturday, and the Australian embassy said it was trying to negotiate a special flight.

Other countries, including the United States, were trying to secure joint flights.

Nepal's government estimates that about 10,000 people -- from Europe, Australia, South Korea, the United States and India -- are in far-flung places across the Himalayan nation, which halted all international flights last weekend.

About 200 trekkers were waiting at Everest base camp.

The Nepal Tourism Board said 137 people were brought from high-altitude trekking trails on Thursday and taken to Kathmandu.

"I think people are starting to get a bit worried for the last few days with the lockdown and the news," said Elka Wallraf, a 30-year-old Belgian who had trekked to Everest base camp.

"We don’t have information about a flight back to Belgium yet," added the teacher, who was stuck in the village of Phakding in the Khumbu region near Everest.

"Our plans keep changing every minute because we don't know what is the best thing to do."

Wallraf said he hoped to get to Kathmandu to get on one of the evacuation planes.

France and other governments organised local flights to get their nationals from remote towns to the Nepalese capital. Some hotels have given free rooms and meals to the stranded tourists.

France and Germany are also negotiating charter flights to get their nationals out of India.

Stuck at the beach 

Sri Lankan authorities have let almost 17,000 foreign tourists use their cancelled flight tickets as passes to get around a curfew, given that they became stuck after incoming flights were halted and a nationwide lockdown was imposed.

Many are stranded at beach resorts far from the airport in the capital Colombo.

Among those in travel limbo are 2,439 Indians, 2,167 Chinese, 2,061 Russians, 1,732 Germans, 1,377 Britons, 916 Canadians and 614 French, the immigration service said.

"We are encouraging other governments to arrange evacuation flights to take back their nationals," Madubhani Perera, director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board, told AFP.

The Maldives, whose economy is dependent on tourism, on Friday halted the arrival of all visitors and ordered the 135 resort islands to clear out all visitors within two weeks.

The nation of 340,000 people has reported 13 confirmed coronavirus cases, all of them foreigners.

The United States said it was organizing a special flight next week to evacuate its nationals based in Pakistan.

—  Agence France-Presse

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