BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission said on Tuesday it would start helping repatriate Europeans from the Chinese region hit hardest by the coronavirus after a request from France.

The Commission said in a statement it had activated its EU Civil Protection Mechanism, under which it will co-fund two planes to bring European Union citizens back from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the virus outbreak.

France had requested assistance to provide consular support to EU citizens in Wuhan.

“This is a first request for assistance and others may follow in the coming days,” the Commission said.

Countries around the world are planning to evacuate diplomatic staff and private citizens from Chinese areas hit by the new coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly in China. A small number of cases have been confirmed elsewhere.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million in the province of Hubei, is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.

The EU will co-finance the transport costs of the aircraft, the first due to depart France early on Wednesday and the second due to leave later this week.

The Commission said around 250 French citizens would be on the first flight back and more than 100 citizens of other EU countries would be on the second. For now, only people showing no signs of the virus would be allowed to travel.

The EU’s Emergency Response Centre was in contact with EU governments in order to coordinate returns and possible quarantine periods.

All EU members are part of the Civil Protection Mechanism, along with Iceland, Norway, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey.

Reporting by John Chalmers and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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