Canada gets China nod to bring home citizens amid epidemic

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne got an okay from China to fly Canadian nationals out of the city of Wuhan, the center of a coronavirus epidemic (AFP Photo/Tolga AKMEN)

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada's top diplomat has gotten a nod from his Chinese counterpart to bring home nearly 200 Canadians from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, his office said Friday.

In a rare telephone call with Foreign Minister Wang Yi Thursday night, Canada's Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne "asked for the collaboration of the Chinese government in helping those Canadian citizens who want to depart the region."

Wang "responded positively," he said in a statement.

Ottawa chartered a plane to bring back 196 Canadians who asked to be repatriated, but the airlift had remained in limbo this week even as the United States, Japan, South Korea and European nations brought home their nationals.

With Wuhan locked down as part of a government effort to contain the epidemic, the Canadian flight required authorization to land in the region.

Canada's relations with its second biggest trading partner have been strained since the arrest on a US warrant of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 during a flight stopover in Vancouver.

China has detained two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, in apparent retaliation. It also blocked Canadian agricultural shipments.

The first phase of a court hearing of a US request for Meng's extradition was held earlier this month, and is scheduled to resume in April.

Kovrig and Spavor, meanwhile, remain in China's opaque penal system.

Champagne's office said he also raised the plight of the detained Canadians with Wang, adding: "The two agreed to remain in touch on issues of mutual importance."

Also Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Donald Trump agreed in a telephone call "on the need for (Kovrig and Spavor's) immediate release."

Meanwhile, a 50-year-old Toronto man who had contracted the coronavirus during a trip to China -- Canada's first of several confirmed case -- has been released from hospital.

"Over the course of the week, his status continued to improve to the point where he no longer required in-patient care," Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre said in a statement.

A fourth positive test of a student in her 20s who'd returned last week from Wuhan to London, Ontario was confirmed on Friday. She has recovered but remains in isolation.