Coronavirus: Hundreds of Bahrainis stuck in Iran as evacuation plans stall

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Hundreds of Bahraini pilgrims are stranded in Iran, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, as Bahrain struggles to evacuate its citizens from a country with which it has no diplomatic ties.

Jamal, who has been in the Shi'ite holy city of Mashhad with his wife and daughter since early February, told Reuters he was awaiting news of repatriation plans after a government-chartered flight was delayed last Thursday and again this Thursday.

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"Yesterday we were ready to leave and then at the last moment they said the flight was cancelled without any explanation," the 62-year-old man, who declined to give his last name, said by telephone from his hotel.

Bahrain said the company from which its health ministry had leased an airplane to conduct a second repatriation flight had backed out and authorities were seeking alternatives "as soon as possible", state news agency BNA said on Wednesday.

There are no direct flights between Bahrain and Iran, its regional arch-foe, where the death toll from the coronavirus now exceeds 1,200.

Bahrain repatriated 165 people last week on an Omani airplane. Authorities have said around 85 of them have so far tested positive for the virus.

Fears for elderly pilgrims

Many Bahrainis go to Iran via Oman and Dubai on pilgrimage to Shi'ite holy cities such as Mashhad and Qom, where the outbreak in Iran began.

Bahraini national Reda Ali said his elderly father had died on pilgrimage in Mashhad last week from a heart attack. He now fears for his 75-year-old mother, who he said has pre-existing conditions, and for his brother.

"I fear a lot for those (pilgrims)... Most are old or retired people," he told Reuters from Bahrain, voicing concern about the availability of medicine in Iran, which has been hit by Western sanctions.

"Many families in Bahrain fear for the unknown fate of their families," he said, criticizing Bahraini authorities for what he described as a lack of coordination or communication.

Bahraini authorities have tasked a foundation under the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry to cover the costs of nationals stranded abroad, BNA said.

Bahrain, which has reported 269 coronavirus cases, most of them linked to travel to Iran, has criticized the Islamic Republic for not stamping Bahraini citizens' passports.

The two countries have long-standing differences. Manama accuses Tehran of backing Shi'ite-led opposition in the Gulf Arab island state, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family. Iran denies the charges.

For Jamal the priority is to return home.

"We remain in our rooms most of the time, we are fine. It's just the anxiety of what's happening in Iran and all the delays of our evacuation."

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