Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia close Iranian border, Afghanistan bans travel over coronavirus fears

KARACHI/KABUL: Pakistan has sealed its Taftan border and stopped pilgrims from traveling via the crossing to Iran after six coronavirus deaths were reported in the neighboring country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

Afghanistan on Sunday also suspended all travel to and from Iran after officials reported three suspected cases of coronavirus among Afghans who had returned from Iran recently.

There are several shrines in Iran which are frequented by a large number of Shiites from Pakistan. Hundreds of people access the Taftan border crossing between the countries on a daily basis.

Pakistan has stopped all movement from crossing points, launched screening procedures and introduced additional patrols along the border “until the situation is under control,” Mir Zia Ullah Langove, home minister of southwestern Balochistan province, said.

“We are trying to take every possible precaution,” he told Arab News, adding that these were efforts being taken by the provincial government, with assurance from Prime Minister Imran Khan that the federal government would also be extending its help.

The move to seal the border follows Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan’s decision to declare a health emergency in all provincial districts bordering Iran on Saturday. But reports of the coronavirus deaths have had no impact on flights to and from Iran.

“The staff of the health ministry is already present at the airports and a passenger is allowed entry only after clearance of health declaration,” Abdul Sattar Khokhar, Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan spokesman, told Arab News as he dismissed reports of a temporary halt on flights to Iran.

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“There is no reality in reports that flight operations to Iran have been stopped. We had neither stopped flight operations to and from China and nor will it be stopped to any other country.”
Imran Zarkon, who is chief of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, said 1,000 masks had been distributed in border areas and a temporary hospital tent with 100-beds had been set up to deal with an emergency as part of preventive efforts.

“Qom is the most affected area of Iran where the pilgrims go, so if there is any possibility of virus coming to Pakistan it will be through Taftan and authorities here are on high alert,” he told Arab News.

But these steps have failed to console the people of Balochistan, with some expressing concern about illegal movement along the porous border.

“Iran shares over #1000 KM long porous border with #Balochistan #Pakistan, #coronaravirus deaths are alarming news for the region,” Sanallah Baloch, a Balochistan lawmaker, tweeted on Saturday. “Daily 100s of people cross these borders without formal procedures, region is poverty-stricken with no medical facility.”

In a statement released Sunday, Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri said he had discussed the matter with Iranian officials to safeguard Pakistani nationals visiting the country.
Qadri also spoke to Dr. Zafar Mirza, state minister for health, on the deployment of medical teams to Taftan town along the border.

Iranian health authorities said 28 people were being treated for the virus in at least four different cities, including Tehran.


Porous borders

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan share long, porous borders with Iran that are often used by smugglers and human traffickers, while millions of Afghan refugees currently live in the Islamic Republic — raising fears that the virus could easily spread over the border.

“To prevent the spread of the novel #coronavirus and protect the public, Afghanistan suspends all passenger movement (air and ground) to and from Iran,” the office of the National Security Council of Afghanistan said in a statement posted on Twitter.

A provincial official in Pakistan and the country’s Frontier Corps also confirmed that the country had sealed the land border with Iran.

Blood samples of the three elderly men, now in hospital in the western city of Herat near the border with Iran, have been sent to Kabul for checking, said Waheed Mayar, a spokesman for the Afghan Public Health Ministry.

“We don’t know how long it will take to find out if they really have coronavirus. They were tested at the border, and it could be the virus or any other illness related to cold weather,” he told Arab News.

Afghan authorities held an emergency meeting on Sunday, during which they decided to “halt all types of travel to and from Iran temporarily,” the government said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have lived for decades in Iran. Some of them routinely travel to Afghanistan for trade purposes and to visit family.

Some come through official border checkpoints, but those who do not possess passports and travel documents use illegal routes, making it tough for Afghan authorities to test and determine who is affected by the deadly virus.


8th coronavirus death

Earlier Sunday, Iran reported eight deaths from the novel coronavirus, the highest toll of any country outside China, as the supreme leader accused foreign media of trying to use the outbreak to sabotage a general election.

The latest three deaths Iran reported on Sunday were among 15 new confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, bringing the overall number of infections to 43 and fatalities to eight — the highest death toll outside of China, the epicenter of the epidemic.

Four new infections surfaced in the capital Tehran, seven in the holy city of Qom, two in Gilan and one each in Markazi and Tonekabon, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.

Authorities have ordered as a “preventive measure” the closure of schools, universities and other educational centers in 14 provinces across Iran from Sunday.

Desperate and jobless Afghans have crossed the porous border with Iran for years in search of work to support their struggling families back home.

But hundreds of thousands of Afghans have returned home in recent years as US sanctions have battered the Iranian economy.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a Facebook post on Sunday said the country is closing its border with Iran for two weeks and suspending air traffic after reports of coronavirus cases there. Turkey also said it would “temporarily” shut its border with Iran.

Moreover, the Kuwait Port Authority also announced a ban on the entry of all ships from the Islamic republic.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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