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Coronavirus: Pakistan says cases originate from 'infection-free' Syria

Activist group says infections and deaths secretly being recorded in many Syrian provinces, including Damascus, Tartus, Latakia and Homs
Health official tests passengers at Damascus international airport as part of security measures to avoid spreading coronavirus (Reuters)

Pakistani officials have said cases of coronavirus in their country can be traced back to war-torn Syria, despite Damascus not recording a single instance of an infection.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group on Thursday said coronavirus cases had secretly been recorded in the provinces of Damascus, Tartus, Latakia and Homs.

Syed Murad Ali Shah, chief minister of Pakistan’s Sindh, said on Tuesday that nationals returning from the Middle East were responsible for the outbreak in the southeastern province.

"The eight cases were those that came from Doha. Before Doha, they were either coming from Iraq or Syria," he told Geo TV.

"As soon as we found out about one of the cases, we tested all of the people from the group, even those that didn't have any symptoms. Some did not show any symptoms but we still tested them, and they tested positive for the virus."

Pakistan’s health minister, Zafar Mirza, also said some of the 24 registered cases came from Syria.

Cases were coming from "Iran, Iraq, Syria, and even London. Some of the cases are being reported from London travelling via Dubai", he told Hum News.

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Sources told Middle East Eye that Pakistanis returning from the Middle East are likely to be members of the Zainebiyoun Brigade, an Iran-backed militia fighting in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

Pakistani Zainebiyoun Brigade fighters have recently been involved in the heavy clashes between Turkey and pro-Syrian government forces.

As many as 50 Pakistani fighters were killed in Turkish raids earlier this month, Arab News reported.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has released no information about the possible spread of the coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly throughout the Middle East and particularly affecting close ally Iran.

Sources told the UK-based Observatory that several cases have been recorded, however, including some deaths.

“Doctors confirmed that they were given strict orders from the authorities of the Syrian regime to remain silent and refrain from talking about the outbreak of the coronavirus,” the Observatory said.

Iran, which on Thursday asked the IMF for a $5bn loan to combat the outbreak, has recorded at least 10,000 infections and 429 deaths.

Iranians travel in and out of Syria regularly for religious and business reasons. Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias freely roam through Syria, Iran and Iraq.