Taiwan, China argue over flights for stranded Taiwanese in Wuhan

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan and China are embroiled in a new dispute over the fate of Taiwanese stranded in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak, after Taiwan said a citizen sent back on the first flight was infected with the disease.

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Only one flight from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has evacuated 247 of the estimated 500 Taiwanese caught up in China’s preventative lockdown of Wuhan.

Beijing has permitted countries from the United States to Japan to send flights to Wuhan, some of them several times, to collect their nationals.

But Taiwan and China have been unable to agree on more flights to take out the Taiwanese.

Taiwan’s China policy-making Mainland Affairs Council said the first flight back, on Monday, had one passenger confirmed to be infected with the virus and three others who had fevers.

All the passengers are now in quarantine in Taiwan.

The presence of the sick passenger “created a tear in virus prevention”, the council said in a statement.

“This also caused an overlap infection risk for the people on the same flight, and if there are even more infected people caused by this then the serious consequences don’t bear thinking about.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, speaking at Taiwan’s Centres for Disease Control, said China had not prioritized more vulnerable groups - which Taiwan says includes the elderly, children and others - on the first flight back despite an agreement with China that they would.

“Our fellow countrymen in Wuhan are our compatriots, and we hope to provide the best care to them,” she said. “We have no political considerations.”

China, for its part, says Taiwan should not be putting up obstacles to evacuate the Taiwanese, and further planned evacuation flights this week had been put off because Taipei blocked them.

“Some people in Taiwan had been bad-mouthing arrangements for the homecoming of Taiwan compatriots, which has fully exposed the vile nature of their ignoring of the Taiwan compatriots’ interests,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said late on Thursday.

Taiwan should stop its “political games” and let the flights resume, it added.

Taiwan and China are already at loggerheads over the handling of the virus outbreak, especially over Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO).

China says Taiwan is part of China and has been provided with timely information on the virus. Taiwan says that is not true.

Taiwan has reported 16 cases of the virus, compared with more than 31,000 in China. Taiwan’s first case was discharged from hospital this week after recovering.

Reporting by Fabian Hamacher; Additional reporting and writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast