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EU to repatriate 600 citizens seeking to flee China virus

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is working to repatriate about 600 citizens from 14 EU countries seeking to leave China because of a spreading new virus that has already killed more than 130 people.

European Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday that the situation with the deadly virus centered on the Chinese city of Wuhan “is likely to get worse before it will get better.”

He said the EU has offered help to China to deal with the virus and can mobilize emergency financing and medical teams if needed.

“We are actively coordinating” with Chinese authorities to repatriate citizens from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Britain, he said.

He said the organization of the flights was still under way and couldn’t give details on when the evacuation flights would leave or what destinations they would involve. The United States and Japan have already evacuated some citizens from the affected area in China.

Chinese officials said Wednesday the death toll from the virus rose to 132, with confirmed infections jumping to 5,974 cases. Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how transmissible and severe it is.

In China's Hubei province, 17 cities including Wuhan have been locked down, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

The EU administration urged all of its staff to postpone any non-essential travel to China. The EU is also planning a meeting of health ministers from all 28 members to discuss the virus outbreak.

“We mustn’t underestimate the situation. We need to mobilize all our tools,” said European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

The British government said it's preparing to fly U.K. citizens back from the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak and will put them in quarantine for two weeks. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted Wednesday “anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all necessary medical attention.”

There's an estimated 200 U.K citizens in Wuhan, and a flight is expected to bring them back to the U.K. on Thursday. Britain’s Press Association news agency reported the returning Britons will likely be held on a military base.

British Airways said Wednesday it is halting all flights to China, joining several Asian carriers that are either suspending or significantly cutting back service there due to fears of spreading the virus and endangering employees' health.

The airline operates daily flights from London's Heathrow Airport to Shanghai and Beijing. It took the measure a day after Britain's Foreign Office warned against “all but essential travel” to the Chinese mainland, not including Hong Kong and Macao.

Germany’s Lufthansa and its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss announced they are suspending flights to mainland China through Feb. 9. Lufthansa said Wednesday the airlines will fly one last time to their destinations in China, giving passengers a chance to catch their flights and bring crews back to Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The airlines will continue to fly to Hong Kong.

German auto parts maker Webasto said Wednesday it has temporarily shut its headquarters near Munich after four employees were confirmed to have been infected with the new virus earlier this week. The infections are believed to have occurred following contact with a Chinese employee from Wuhan who had traveled to Germany to lead a training session.

The company said most of the 1,000 staff at the site in Stockdorf are working from home for the time being. Webasto sells panoramic car roofs, heating and other auto parts, about half of which go to China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the government to “be prepared” for dealing with a possible outbreak of the new virus, even though Russia has not had a single confirmed case so far. Russia shares a long border with China and up to 2 million Chinese tourists visit Russia every year.

“It is a new phenomenon, and the question is how well we are prepared for this challenge,” Putin said Wednesday during a meeting with Cabinet members.

In sports, the Danish top-tier soccer club Aalborg Boldklub decided not to play a friendly against the Wuhan Zall club from the top Chinese league. They had been planning to meet up in Spain.

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Jill Lawless in London, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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