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South Korea sends planes to remove and replace crew of coronavirus-hit navy destroyer

South Korean navy destroyer
South Korean naval destroyer Munmu the Great prepares to dock in Manila in 2019.
(Bullit Marquez / Associated Press)

South Korea dispatched military aircraft Sunday to remove and replace the crew of a naval destroyer off East Africa after nearly 70 of the 301 crew members tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.

Two aerial tankers are flying in new crew members and will take home the 301 sailors already aboard the 4,400-ton-class destroyer Munmu the Great, which has been on an anti-piracy mission, officials with the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff and Health Ministry said.

They said 68 crew members have so far tested positive, and the results of tests for 200 others are still pending.

Fifteen sailors have been hospitalized in an African country that authorities did not name, while the rest are on the destroyer. None of the crew had been vaccinated against COVID-19 because they left South Korea in early February before the start of the country’s vaccination campaign, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official said.

The origin of the infections hasn’t been announced. But military authorities suspect that the coronavirus might have spread when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.

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The replacement crew of 150 navy personnel will arrive aboard the aerial tankers and move to the destroyer, which is anchored at sea, to sail it back to South Korea on a journey that takes about a month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff official said.

The end of most COVID-19 restrictions in England sparks celebratory scenes in nightclubs and stark warnings from scientists amid rising infections.

Health Ministry official Sohn Youngrae told reporters that the 301 off-loaded crew members will be sent to hospitals or quarantine facilities upon their return to South Korea early this week.

South Korea has taken part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. Military officials said Munmu the Great was to be replaced by another destroyer next month following a six-month rotational deployment. The second destroyer is on its way to the area.

The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is grappling with a spike in infections at home that has forced authorities to place the populous capital region under the toughest social-distancing rules.

Starting Monday, authorities will enforce a four-person cap on private gatherings in areas outside the Seoul metropolitan region for two weeks, Sohn said. In the Seoul area, the same restrictions have been in place during the daytime since July 12, and gatherings of three or more people are banned after 6 p.m.

South Korea on Sunday confirmed an additional 1,454 new coronavirus cases, taking the country’s total to 177,951 infections and 2,057 deaths since the pandemic began. It was the 12th consecutive day that South Korea reported more than 1,000 new cases.


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