China to bring overseas Wuhan citizens back to virus-hit city

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Beijing (AFP)

China is to send charter planes to bring citizens of virus-hit Wuhan city home from overseas "as soon as possible", the foreign ministry said Friday.

The move comes as a number of airlines announced they were halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of a deadly new virus.

Beijing has advised its citizens to postpone trips abroad and cancelled overseas group tours, while several countries including the US, Germany, Britain and Japan have urged their citizens to avoid travel to China.

"In view of the practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas, the Chinese government has decided to send charter flights to take them directly back to Wuhan as soon as possible," said ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Wuhan -- where authorities have identified a market selling wild animals for food as the epicentre of the outbreak -- has experienced an unprecedented lockdown in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

The topic was trending online on Friday, with over 35 million views and 15,000 discussion posts on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo.

"These people probably don't want to go back (to Wuhan)," said one.

Another questioned if they should be brought back if they were not infected.

When asked about the suspension of international flights at a press conference on Thursday, Zhu Tao of China's Civil Aviation Administration said authorities were coordinating arrangements to bring travellers home.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed in the city. AFP reporters saw long queues at hospitals, with some patients saying they queued for two days to see a doctor.

As fears of the outbreak have spread overseas, prominent figures in Chinese communities in Italy warned this week of episodes of "latent racism" against their compatriots by Italians fearful of catching the virus.