Host S.Korea shifts U.N. peacekeeping meet online amid Omicron concerns

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SEOUL, Dec 1 (Reuters) - A U.N. peacekeeping conference expected to draw more than 700 people to Seoul next week from 155 nations will now be held online instead, as concerns grow over the Omicron variant of coronavirus, South Korean officials said on Wednesday.

The ministerial meeting set for Dec. 7 and 8, aimed at boosting co-operation with an eye to strengthening medical facilities and technology, was expected to be the first such event in Seoul since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the emergence of the new variant prompted urgent talks between officials of South Korea and the United Nations, leading to the decision to hold the meeting online, said an official in the South Korean capital.

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"Many countries are tightening travel restrictions," the foreign ministry official told reporters. "We've spoken with U.N. agencies, the African Union and other countries, and decided to hold the meeting online."

U.N. peacekeepers are mostly in Africa and the Middle East, while some nations that are co-chairs of the conference, such as Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States, have reported Omicron infections.

Although South Korea has no confirmed Omicron infections, it has clamped down on arrivals from eight countries including South Africa, where the variant was first identified. read more

Amid rising threats to peacekeepers in some conflict-hit regions, the United Nations has called the conference, postponed from April, the first high-level meeting on the subject since the pandemic.

Seoul will introduce IT-based, environmentally friendly "smart camp" models and offer helicopters to help meet growing aviation needs, Ham Sang-wook, a South Korean deputy minister who is organising the event, told Reuters.

Many nations have imposed new travel curbs and sought to block international arrivals after the discovery of Omicron, fearing it could be more transmissible, or even evade antibodies engendered by prior infection or vaccination. read more

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Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kim Coghill and Clarence Fernandez

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