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Coronavirus curfew shuts down cities in Iraq's Kurdish region

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Arbil (Iraq) (AFP)

Pigeons are the only visitors to Arbil's citadel, normally buzzing with tourists, and security forces in masks and gloves have emptied cobblestone streets below as the Iraqi city goes into lockdown.

Overnight Friday to Saturday, Arbil and the city of Sulaimaniyah, both in Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region, began a 48-hour curfew to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"Moving around is banned and people must stay home," the region's interior ministry said in a statement.

Iraq has registered at least 10 deaths and more than 90 cases of COVID-19. The first recorded fatality was a 70-year-old imam in Sulaimaniyah, and 28 others in the region are confirmed to have been infected.

On Saturday in Sulaimaniyah, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) southeast of Arbil, men in protective gear and with green disinfectant tanks strapped to their backs sprayed down sidewalks and store fronts.

Ambulances and fire trucks could be seen driving through the city streets, which were otherwise clear of activity.

Iraq has been particularly worried about a spread of the virus from neighbouring Iran, which has been one of the worst-hit countries.

More than 600 people have died and over 12,000 have been infected by the novel coronavirus in Iran, which shares a border of around 1,500-kilometres (over 900 miles) with Iraq.

Iraq has officially closed its crossing points along the entire frontier with Iran, but authorities fear that people can still use smuggling routes and informal crossings to travel undetected.

About a third of the shared border is with Iraq's Kurdistan region.

In a broader move, Kurdish authorities have banned travel to federal Iraqi provinces for two weeks starting Saturday and have barred large gatherings and sporting events.

The decision is likely to cripple Kurdish new year celebrations, set to take place from around March 19.

Iraq's federal authorities have announced bans on non-Iraqi travellers coming from around a dozen countries facing COVID-19 outbreaks.

While authorities have not imposed a nationwide curfew, the province of Nineveh, which neighbours the Kurdish region, announced its own 48-hour lockdown from Saturday night.

Federal authorities have shut schools, shopping centres and movie theatres across the country, and government agencies have slashed their opening hours.

Shiite Muslim shrines in the south have remained open, under pressure from religious and political authorities.

A massive COVID-19 outbreak in Iraq would likely overwhelm the country's health system, worn down by years of conflict, inadequate investment and chronic shortages.

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