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Anxious foreigners await rescue from China virus epicentre

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Wuhan (China) (AFP)

Anxious foreigners in the locked-down city that spawned China's deadly viral epidemic say they are stranded at home, running out of food and desperate to leave, as governments scrambled to draw up evacuation plans.

Authorities have barred travel to and from Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected before it spread across China and to a dozen other countries -- including the United States, France and Australia.

Several other large cities in China have introduced their own travel restrictions in a bid to contain the disease, which has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000 others.

"In the past week we've not been able to go out and buy anything to eat," said Mashal Jamalzai, a political science student from Afghanistan at Central China Normal University.

He told AFP that he and his classmates had been living on biscuits, and his embassy had not responded to requests for help.

"We want to be evacuated as soon as possible, because either the virus, the hunger or the fear will kill us," Jamalzai said.

Thousands of foreign students and other international residents live in Wuhan, a normally bustling transport hub in central China home to a huge steel and auto industry.

But with schools, hospitals and public offices shut and no transport to and from the city, Hubei University student Siti Mawaddah says the city now "looks like a ghost town".

"The situation in Wuhan right now is very intense and worrying," the 25-year-old Indonesian told AFP, adding that the situation had taken a psychological toll on her and her classmates.

"If we stay in Wuhan, it's as if we're just waiting for our turn to get infected," she said.

Mawaddah said she had heard the United States plans to evacuate consular staff and some American citizens living in the city, and hoped her own government could do the same.

- Evacuation plans -

The US State Department is sending a flight to collect its consular staff and carry them to San Francisco, but warned that there would only be limited space for the estimated 1,000 Americans living in Wuhan.

"If there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus," the department said.

Diana Adama, an American teacher living in Wuhan, told CNN that she was upset at the lack of information about the virus.

But she said she didn't want to leave on the chartered flight if it meant carrying the virus back home.

"I'm not going to endanger anybody else. And that's just erring on the side of caution," she told the broadcaster.

France is also planning to evacuate its citizens stuck in Hubei province by bus, and French carmaker PSA -- which has a sizable presence in Wuhan -- said was formulating plans to evacuate staff and relatives for quarantine in a neighbouring province.

South Korea's consulate general in Wuhan conducted a poll on Sunday to determine the demand for a chartered plane for its citizens who want to return home, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country would fly out any nationals who wanted to leave.

Singapore has already repatriated 20 airline staff and passengers who were quarantined in the eastern city of Hangzhou for more than a day after fears one person on the flight was carrying the disease, according to the Straits Times newspaper.

And Sri Lanka said Sunday it would fly back 150 students from China in the next two days.

With China ramping up travel restrictions in cities across the country -- including Beijing and Shanghai -- foreign countries have told their citizens to avoid Wuhan.

Russia has yet to report its first case of the virus but has gone a step further, with tourism officials on Friday asking operators to stop selling tour packages to China and inform customers about the dangers of the outbreak.

Tourism company Rus-Tour announced Sunday it was transporting 1,100 of its customers home from Hainan, a resort island popular with Russian travellers around 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) south of Wuhan.

The firm was also halting sales of tours to China "until the epidemiological situation in the country is back to normal", it said in a statement.

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