Coronavirus: Iran reports three new cases after two deaths

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Iran has confirmed three new coronavirus cases following the deaths of two elderly men, the health ministry told AFP on Thursday, as Iraq banned travel to and from its neighbour.

The pair who died were elderly Iranian citizens and residents of the city of Qom. They were the first confirmed deaths from the Covid-19 virus in the Middle East.

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpour said two of the new cases were also in Qom and the other was in Arak, south of the holy city.

"In total there were five cases... of which two have been fatal," he said.

Qom is a centre for Islamic studies and tourists, attracting scholars from Iran and beyond. However, a government official said the deceased men had not left Iran.

Following the announcement of the deaths, Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from the Islamic republic, with Iraq's health ministry announcing people in Iran were barred from entering the country "until further notice".

"Iranians are prohibited from entering (Iraq)," a senior official told AFP, adding that border crossings with Iran are now closed, with only returning Iraqis allowed to pass through.

These Iraqis will be examined and, if necessary, they will be placed "in quarantine for 14 days", the health ministry said.

Iraqi nationals are also not allowed to travel to Iran, according to the ministry.

Masked passengers look on from on board the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama Port, south of Tokyo, Japan, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Passengers wait for transportation after leaving the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama Port, south of Tokyo, Japan, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

epa08229502 Australian evacuees from the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan, disembark the Qantas flight QFA6032 at Darwin International Airport in Darwin, Australia, 20 February 2020. Hundreds of Australian nationals evacuated from the cruise ship will be quarantined at a workers camp in Howard Springs. EPA/HELEN ORR AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

Health workers arrive at the newly-built public housing Chun Yeung Estate for quarantining passengers from the cruise ship Diamond Princess, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, at Fo Tan in Hong Kong, China February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Workers load luggage into a bus as a second group of passengers from the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship disembark in Yokohama Port, south of Tokyo, Japan, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

This photo taken on February 19, 2020 shows police officers wearing protective face masks walking with horses on their way to visit residents who live in remote areas in Altay, farwest China's Xinjiang region, to promote the awareness of the virus. The death toll from China's new coronavirus epidemic jumped to 2,112 on February 20 after 108 more people died in Hubei province, the hard-hit epicentre of the outbreak. - China OUT / AFP / STR

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 19: Chinese men wear protective masks in a residential neighbourhood on February 19, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of the deadly new coronavirus COVID-19 rose to more than 58000 in mainland China Wednesday, in what the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global public health emergency. China continued to lock down the city of Wuhan in an effort to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts have confirmed can be passed from human to human. In an unprecedented move, Chinese authorities have maintained and in some cases tightened the travel restrictions on the city which is the epicentre of the virus and also in municipalities in other parts of the country affecting tens of millions of people. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to over 2000 on Wednesday mostly in Hubei province, and cases have been reported in other countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and several others. The World Health Organization has warned all governments to be on alert and screening has been stepped up at airports around the world. Some countries, including the United States, have put restrictions on Chinese travellers entering and advised their citizens against travel to China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A pedestrian walks through the 1881 Heritage shopping mall, operated by CK Asset Holdings Ltd., in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Hong Kong is heading for its first back-to-back annual recessions on record, as the coronavirus shutdown cripples an economy already battered by months of political unrest. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Pedestrians walk past a Salvatore Ferragamo SpA store on Canton Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Hong Kong is heading for its first back-to-back annual recessions on record, as the coronavirus shutdown cripples an economy already battered by months of political unrest. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

A woman wearing a face mask walks at the Beijing Daxing International Airport, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing, China February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

A staff member wearing face mask and goggles is seen at a counter at the Beijing Daxing International Airport, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing, China February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

A man wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus?walks at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

This handout picture taken on February 19, 2020 by Daegu Metropolitan City Namgu shows South Korean health officials wearing protective suit and spraying disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu as about 40 new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus confirmed after they attended same church services. A cluster of novel coronavirus infections centred on a cult church in the South Korean city of Daegu leaped to 39 cases February 20, as the country's total spiked for the second successive day. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Daegu Metropolitan City Namgu" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP / Daegu Metropolitan City Namgu / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Daegu Metropolitan City Namgu" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

A worker and vehicle spray disinfectant and water as a precaution against the new coronavirus in front of the statue of King Sejong in the Joseon Dynasty, at the Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul, Thursday, Feb. 20. The mayor of the South Korean city of Daegu urged its 2.5 million people on Thursday to refrain from going outside as cases of the new virus spike. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The border closure followed a backlash against the announcement on Wednesday of visa waivers for Iranian nationals wishing to travel to Iraq by the interior ministry.

Iraqis took to social media using the hashtag "close the border" and local officials called for a ban on the entry of goods and people through various border crossings with the Islamic republic.

Iraqi airports are already screening travellers for the virus and national carrier Iraqi Airways has suspended flights to Iran.

Each year, millions of Iranian pilgrims visit holy Shiite sites in Iraq, providing the Iraqi state with significant revenue.

Kuwait Airways became the second national carrier to suspend all flights to Iran starting on Thursday on the advice of the Kuwaiti health ministry and civil aviation authority.

Earlier on Thursday, Iran's government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Tehran would set up a top-level body of government and defence officials to fight the virus' spread, according to state news agency IRNA.

"We, however, need global action (by authorities) and the cooperation of all citizens," Mr Rabiei said on Twitter.

The deaths in Iran were reported by local media on Wednesday, just hours after Tehran said there were two cases in the country.

On social media, several people accused the government of keeping silent to prevent panic ahead of Friday's parliamentary elections.

"Just four hours separated the announcement that two compatriots were infected... and their deaths," journalist Javad Heydarian tweeted.

"This signifies that the virus had been around for some days but they hid the truth."

Public confidence in government pronouncements has plummeted since the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane on January 8 that killed 176 people.

The government initially denied responsibility, but later admitted the plane had been fired on due to "human error" and blamed a jittery missile operator.

The culture ministry has asked local media to only publish official information from government officials and denounced what it claimed was a proliferation of fake news on social media regarding the virus.

Since December, the novel coronavirus has killed 2,118 people in China - the epicentre of the epidemic - excluding Hong Kong and Macau.

Elsewhere in the world, the virus has killed 11 people and spread across some 25 countries.

Updated: February 21, 2020 03:13 AM

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