US faces herculean task bringing back citizens in pandemic

Interior ministry forces instruct a man wearing a protective mask to return home in Rabat, Morocco, which has closed all national borders to stem the coronavirus (AFP Photo/FADEL SENNA)

Washington (AFP) - The United States said Friday it had begun the massive task of looking to repatriate thousands of Americans stuck overseas in the coronavirus pandemic, as lawmakers pressed for more urgent action.

With much of the world imposing restrictions and airlines canceling flights, the State Department has warned that Americans overseas risk being stranded for an "indefinite period."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department had chartered commercial flights and was checking with the Defense Department on its capabilities.

"We're trying to get Americans back from these places where air travel has been disrupted," Pompeo told reporters at the White House.

"And we'll get that done over time. We'll get it done successfully," he said.

But Pompeo said that when Americans "can get back there on their own, they ought to try to do that."

Pompeo, who declined to estimate the number of Americans affected, said that Morocco and Peru were among the first countries from which the State Department was trying to fly back Americans.

It earlier chartered flights to bring Americans out of the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, where the pandemic that has infected more than 250,000 people globally was first reported in late 2019.

In Morocco, the United States has begun a series of flights to evacuate more than 1,000 citizens after the country halted all air, land and sea links in hopes of containing the virus, said David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East.

"This is the only country in the region so far where we've done this effort and gotten this kind of demand, but we understand in countries like Egypt that there are tens of thousands of American citizens and dual nationals," Schenker told reporters.

Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that President Donald Trump's Republican administration was moving too timidly.

He called on the administration to activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a program in which civilian air carriers help out the US military to meet major airlift demands.

"If there ever was a need to increase our nation's aircraft capability during a national crisis, this is it," Menendez said in a statement.

"No American citizen should be abandoned overseas as we confront this unprecedented pandemic simply because of a failure of government to provide them the support that they need," he said.

The Civil Reserve Air Fleet has been activated twice -- to fly troops for the 1990-91 Gulf War and again in 2003 for the Iraq invasion.

In return for keeping the reserve, the Pentagon guarantees business to airlines during peacetime.