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First Canada airlift from Wuhan to land Friday

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Montreal (AFP)

The first Canadians to be evacuated from the epicenter of the new-coronavirus epidemic departed Wuhan on a government-chartered flight Thursday, Ottawa announced, even as the two nations confront "angry" ties on other issues.

Several countries including the United States and France have already repatriated their citizens from Wuhan. But with strained ties between Beijing and Ottawa, Canada's airlift took longer to be approved.

At last count, 347 Canadians had sought Ottawa's help to come home from China, Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said, and 176 made the flight.

Only passengers who were asymptomatic were allowed to board.

Several Canadians also traveled on a US plane that had empty seats and was scheduled to depart shortly after the Canadian plane. Both were due to arrive in Canada Friday morning.

"Our evacuation is underway," Champagne said before takeoff. A second Canadian airlift has been scheduled for Monday, he added.

Champagne noted "a small number of no-shows" at the Wuhan airport who had "changed their minds at the last minute."

In Canada, the passengers are to be housed at the Trenton air force base east of Toronto under quarantine for 14 days, to cover the incubation period of the virus.

Canada's relations with China soured over its 2018 arrest on a US warrant of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. In apparent retaliation, Beijing detained two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig, and businessman Michael Spavor.

Canada's ambassador to China Dominic Barton described the tensions to a parliamentary committee late Wednesday.

"We're angry. We're very angry because of our people that had been taken. China is very angry as well, furious. We're both furious," Barton said.

"The first conversation I had there was probably one of the most unpleasant conversations I've ever had. I mean, the shaking and anger," he said.

Since the new-coronavirus outbreak, Champagne spoke with his Chinese counterpart in a rare telephone call and said Foreign Minister Wang Yi "responded positively" to his requests for help in getting the Canadians out.

Beijing singled out Canada for praise on Monday for not closing its borders to travelers from China. The government of the neighboring US has banned the entry of foreign nationals who have been in China.

As of Thursday, there were five confirmed cases of the virus in Canada.

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