March 19, 2020 / 7:24 PM / 14 days ago

Serbia closes all border crossings, airport to curb coronavirus

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia on Thursday closed its airport and said it will shut all road and rail borders other than to freight traffic, as well as halt all internal passenger transport in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Passengers wait to check in to one of the last flights as Serbia halts all commercial flights from Belgrade's Nikola Tesla airport to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Belgrade, Serbia, March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Passenger flights were banned from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport, operated by France’s Vinci, for the first time since 1999 when flights were halted during the NATO bombing of the country and the war in Kosovo.

The airport remains open only for humanitarian flights and planes with special permits. Serbia had already barred flights to and from the airport in the southern city of Nis.

At a news conference later in the day, President Aleksandar Vucic said that as of 8 AM on Friday, Serbia’s border crossings will be closed for all passenger road and rail transport.

“Nothing but trucks will be allowed to enter,” he said. “From noon tomorrow we will also halt commercial passenger transport inside the country.”

The European Union membership candidate country has already introduced a night curfew, ordered the elderly to stay indoors and in line with a state of emergency imposed on Sunday, deployed military at the borders.

Serbia currently has 103 confirmed coronavirus cases, up from 97 from earlier in the day, out of 506 people tested. There have been no fatalities so far.

Vucic said he feared the contagion would now spread. “The clinic for infectious diseases is almost full,” he added.

Serbia started the hectic purchase of respirators and other medical equipment from abroad to bolster its hospitals, and sought medical help from China, which will send its experts to the Balkan country by the end of the week.

Over the past four days, almost 72,000 Serbians working in the West, many in Austria and Italy which are hard-hit by the coronavirus infection, flocked home.

Vucic, who repeatedly warned them not to come back to Serbia, sharply criticized those who avoid self-isolation of up to three weeks, warning they may face criminal charges and hefty fines.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kirsten Donovan

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