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1,600 Bahraini pilgrims stranded in Iran amid coronavirus pandemic

Manama, Apr 1 (efe-epa).- More than 1,600 Shiite Bahrainis on an Islamic pilgrimage have been stranded in Iran for weeks due to flight suspensions and inaction by their government.

The coronavirus outbreak in early February took hundreds of Bahrainis by surprise who had never imagined that their trip home would be affected.

“We have been locked down in hotel rooms for weeks now with no clear plan to help us return home or help us sustain ourselves as we run out funds waiting for promises to materialise,” one woman told EFE on condition of anonymity from the holy Iranian city of Mashhad.

She was one of 1,630 people who have been stranded in Iran, according to the Bahraini government’s estimations.

There have been no direct flights between the two countries since they severed ties in 2011, which led the pilgrims to fly with third party airlines based in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Both countries have suspended flights to prevent the spread of the virus, leaving the Bahraini government with the task of getting them back.

A bill to prevent the evacuation of the group from Iran was backed by 19 Sunni members of the 40-seat parliament.

Sunni and Shiite are the two main sects within Islam which have been embroiled in a bitter split that goes back some 14 centuries.

The government turned down the proposal, which was criticised by human rights activists as illegal and discriminatory.

Interior minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa vowed last week not to abandon the group.

The government chartered two flights that brought home around 150 people from Iran but there has been no solution for the rest.

Some of those trapped in Iran have managed to get back through Qatar, with which Bahrain cut ties in 2017, while others decided to come back via Oman.

On Friday, 76 Bahrainis landed in Muscat’s airport on their way to Manama, only to have their tickets revoked at the gate and watch the flight left without them.

Omani authorities said there were orders to take them to Doha.

“We were emotionally devastated as we watched the aeroplane back away from the gate without us,” one woman who had a ticket for the flight told EFE on condition of anonymity.

The situation has provoked a public outcry on social media and the Bahraini parliament has offered its citizens in Oman flights home but has refused to evacuate a group of 31 trapped in Doha.

Qatar announced on Saturday it would provide stranded Bahrainis with shelter and health care until they return to Manama.

Bahrain was quick to announce it would bring them home, accusing Doha of “interfering” in its affairs, according to a statement issued by the foreign ministry.

Qatar responded by saying the effort was strictly humanitarian and that the group had been stranded for more than a month.

Under mounting pressure, the Bahraini government presented a two-month-long evacuation plan in parliament as hundreds of its citizens remained stranded. EFE-EPA

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