BEIRUT: Lebanon began Sunday the repatriation of expatriates stranded abroad due to coronavirus lockdown measures.
Two flights transporting expatriates arrived from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at Beirut's international Rafik Hariri Airport. Passengers from Abu Dhabi landed Sunday afternoon shortly after a flight from Riyadh arrived.
Two more flights are expected to arrive from Lagos and Abidjan in the evening, the state-run National News Agency reported.
There were over 73 passengers on the flight from Riyadh and around 78 on the flight from Abu Dhabi, local media reported.
Thousands of Lebanese nationals and residents have been stuck abroad after the government shut down the Beirut airport on March 19 as part of its lockdown measures against the spread of coronavirus.
Cabinet Tuesday approved a plan aiming to bring home thousands of Lebanese expatriates stranded abroad due to the pandemic.
Video footage circulating social media showed returning passengers on the plane from Riyadh applauding medical workers and thanking them for their efforts. Passengers were seated far apart as a precautionary measure.
Upon arrival, expats tested for COVID-19 were transported by buses to designated hotels with medical workers to monitor symptoms. Hours later, Health Minister Hamad Hasan announced that all passengers from Riyadh tested negative for the virus but he urged them to self-isolate for 15 days.
Local media showed footage of passengers arriving at Lancaster Suites in Beirut’s Raouche, where their temperature was immediately taken by medical staff wearing masks and gloves.
Hassan, speaking to media at Rafik Hariri International airport earlier Sunday, assured citizens that diligent measures would be taken to follow up on the returning citizens.
Hasan outlined some of the safety procedures, confirming that teams from the Health Ministry will receive passengers as soon as they land. Passengers will be tested for COVID-19 and taken to hotel rooms to prevent the spread of infection while they wait for results.
Those who test positive will be transferred immediately to Rafik Hariri University Hospital. Those who test negative will be permitted to go home, escorted by security forces.
Lebanese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Fawzi Kabbara said that a diplomatic team from the embassy monitored the procedures at Riyadh’s airport.
“We have 1500 Lebanese who have asked to return and we need to increase the trips,” Kabbara told local media.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab arrived at Rafik Hariri International airport Sunday morning to oversee preparations for their return.
“The foreign minister says there are between 20,000 to 21,000 expatriates who registered to return and we hope to divide the matter in order to ... safely handle arrivals in the interest of their health and the health of the Lebanese,” Diab told local media
He added that the issue might take several weeks.
"The government is concerned with every Lebanese at home and abroad and will work to remove sectarian, doctrinal, regional and political barriers," Diab said.
Middle East Airlines announced that it would allow a 50 percent discount on its ticket prices for Lebanese students who are unable to pay and hoping to return.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri tweeted thanking medical staff for their efforts.
“The measures taken in the transfer of Lebanese from abroad are appreciated,” Hariri wrote.
Lebanon confirmed one new death and seven new cases of coronavirus Sunday, bringing the total number of people dead to 18 and infections to 527.