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Coronavirus

US to evacuate citizens as Japan's ship quarantine comes under fire

Tokyo weighs other nations' requests to leave Diamond Princess

Medical workers walk away from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama on Feb. 11.   © AP

TOKYO -- Washington will send chartered aircraft to evacuate American citizens from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo on Sunday, the U.S. Embassy said, as coronavirus infections on board mount and Japan faces criticism for its response.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with top Japanese health and other officials on Saturday to discuss the situation on the Diamond Princess, which is docked at Yokohama.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told other countries with nationals on board that Tokyo would consider accommodating similar requests to evacuate.

The U.S. charter flight will arrive in Japan Sunday evening, according to a statement from the embassy on Saturday. American passengers and crew members will leave the ship and travel to the airport by bus. The plane will land at a U.S. Air Force base in California, with some passengers to move on to another base in Texas, according to the statement.

Until last weekend, Japanese officials had heard no calls for evacuation from the U.S. side, according to government sources. The thinking in Washington was that the passengers would be safer staying put in Japan, these people said.

But the situation changed as more passengers and crew became infected with the coronavirus. On Saturday, 67 new cases were confirmed on the Diamond Princess, bringing the total to 285 out of the roughly 3,400 people on board.

Conditions on board have been widely reported in U.S. media, with some passengers calling on President Donald Trump to intervene.

The U.S. government's assessment of the situation on the ship also appears to have changed. Speaking to reporters, an official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency was concerned about data from the Japanese side indicating a "high risk" of infection inside the Diamond Princess.

Passengers on the Diamond Princess. A chartered flight to the U.S. will arrive in Japan on Feb. 16 to take Americans back home.   © Reuters

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on Saturday talked with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Munich. They confirmed that both countries will work together with regard to the American nationals aboard the cruise ship.

With unexplained coronavirus cases rising in Japan, concentrating resources on the cruise ship has put strain on the Abe government's response to the outbreak and prompted Tokyo to allow foreign passengers and crew to disembark for the first time.

More such decisions may follow. The Taiwanese government requested on Friday to evacuate its roughly 20 nationals from the Diamond Princess. Israel's foreign minister made a similar request on Thursday for the 15 Israelis on board.

Passengers and crew who test positive for the coronavirus will not return to the U.S. on Sunday's charter flight.

Japan's health minister, Katsunobu Kato, said on Saturday that all passengers and crew would be screened for the coronavirus, not just those showing symptoms. Those who test negative and are in good health will be allowed to disembark starting on Wednesday, Kato said.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that nearly 380 American citizens would return on the U.S. chartered flight.

The Diamond Princess left Yokohama on Jan. 20, making stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan before returning to the Japanese port city on Feb. 3. A passenger who left in Hong Kong was found to have the new coronavirus, prompting Japan to order a 14-day quarantine of the ship.

"We are deeply grateful to the cruise line and government of Japan for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness," the U.S. Embassy said. "However, to fulfill our government's responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices... the U.S. government recommends... that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring."

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