DUBAI, April 13 (Reuters) – Bahrain said on Monday that state-owned Gulf Air has begun flying to Iran to repatriate Bahrainis stranded there due to the coronavirus crisis, the first direct flights between the two countries in four years.
More than a thousand Bahrainis, most of them pilgrims visiting Shi’ite Muslim religious sites, have been stranded for more than two months in the Islamic Republic, which is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
There have been no direct flights since January 2016 between Bahrain and Iran, which have no diplomatic ties and long-standing differences. Manama alleges Tehran has stoked unrest in the island state, a charge Iran denies.
Bahrain, which has recorded 1,348 coronavirus cases and six related deaths, has struggled to find other airlines willing to fly to Iran and has managed to repatriate only a few hundred people, prompting criticism by some citizens.
Bahrain’s initial cases of the coronavirus were among Bahrainis returning from Iran via third countries, which caused Manama to rebuke Tehran over not stamping their passports.
“Gulf Air has begun operating direct flights to Iran to expedite the safe return of citizens,” Bahrain’s government said in a statement.
Gulf Air cancelled most of its services in mid-March due to the spread of the virus, but is still flying to and from London, Paris, Frankfurt and Manila, the statement said.
The airline has carried out repatriation flights from the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, it added.
Other Persian Gulf’s Arab states are using their national carriers to bring citizens back home.
Kuwait said on Monday it would start another repatriation process next week for 50,000 Kuwaitis around the world. Last month Kuwait said it had flown home more than 2,700 citizens.
(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alexander Smith)