By Nafisa Eltahir and Lisa Barrington
DUBAI, March 12 (Reuters) – Bahrain accused Iran on Thursday of “biological aggression” by covering up the spread of the coronavirus and failing to stamp Bahraini travellers’ passports.
As the death toll continued to rise in Iran, Gulf Arab states took new steps to contain the virus, with Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority saying anyone diagnosed with coronavirus was forbidden from attending Friday prayers.
Attendance is generally mandatory for able-bodied men in Islam, but Riyadh said those under quarantine and those afraid of being infected or infecting others need not attend.
Many of the recorded infections throughout the Gulf region are linked to travel to Iran, which hosts several important shrines and pilgrimage sites for Shi’ite Muslims.
“With this behaviour, Iran has allowed the disease to travel abroad, and in my estimation this constitutes a form of biological aggression that is criminalised by international law, as it has put in danger our safety and health and that of others,” Bahraini Interior Minister General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa said on Twitter.
PT: Iran, through such practice allows the transmission of this dangerous virus abroad. In my opinion, this is considered as “Internationally prohibited biological aggression” as it risks our safety and the safety of others.
— Ministry of Interior (@moi_bahrain) March 12, 2020
In an apparent response, Amir Abdollahian, special aide to Iran‘s parliamentary speaker, tweeted: “America, which rules Bahrain through the presence of its Fifth Fleet, is a major cause of biological warfare and initially denied the existence of coronavirus.”
Saudi Arabia, which has a minority Shi’ite population and had already made it a crime to travel to Iran, last week denounced its regional rival for granting Saudi citizens entry.
Bahrain, where Shi’ites make up a majority of the population, has no such restrictions.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi has denied that not stamping passports has anything to do with coronavirus and called on Riyadh to avoid politicising the epidemic.
No Gulf Arab state has reported a coronavirus death.
But Bahrain on Wednesday reported 77 new infections among citizens evacuated from Iran. A second government-chartered repatriation flight was scheduled for Thursday.
Bahrain said non-compliance with isolation measures would be punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of up to 10,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($32,000). Three people have already been reported to the public prosecutor, state news agency BNA said.
Saudi Arabia, which has suspended the Umrah pilgrimage and locked down its eastern Qatif region where many infections are located, announced 24 new cases for a total of 45.
Riyadh halted flights to the European Union and 12 other countries, extending an earlier ban and giving Saudi citizens and residents 72 hours to return, state news agency SPA said.
The flight ban now includes many countries from where millions of Saudi Arabia’s migrant workers hail.
Passenger traffic through all land crossings with Jordan was also suspended. Commercial and cargo traffic continued.
Saudi authorities asked people to avoid shaking hands and congregating in groups of more than 50. They announced that wedding halls and hotels would be closed to all social gatherings from Friday.
Kuwait reported eight new infections, taking its total to 80, and started a two-week public holiday declared to help contain the virus. Authorities shut the stock market on Thursday and banned all commercial passenger flights to and from Kuwait.
Oman suspended tourist visas from all countries and banned cruise ships from docking. The United Arab Emirates reported 11 new cases, taking its total to 85.
Dubai’s Emirates airline said it had frozen recruitment and was suspending flights to Italy until April 3, in addition to other routes in the United States, Europe and Far East. Sister carrier flydubai said it was suspending flights to Italy.
Dubai’s crown prince announced an AED 1.5 billion ($408 million) stimulus package to support the retail, trade, tourism and energy sectors.
Qatar, which reported 238 new cases among expatriates in a single residential compound, announced on Thursday the indefinite closure of cinemas, theatres, gyms and museums. ($1 = 0.3067 Kuwaiti dinars) ($1 = 3.6728 UAE dirham)
(Additional reporting by Samar Hassan, Ahmed Hagagy, Parisa Hafezi, Alaa Swilam, Saeed Azhar and Stephen Kalin; Writing by Nafisa Eltahir and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Gareth Jones, Timothy Heritage and Daniel Wallis)