After clashes, Ukraine blames disinformation campaign for spreading coronavirus panic

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk on Friday blamed an “information war” being waged on the country for spreading panic and mistrust over the coronavirus, a day after the arrival of evacuees from China sparked clashes outside a sanatorium.

Speaking to parliament, Honcharuk said misinformation was being spread from within and outside Ukraine but did not elaborate.

The authorities are trying to find the source of bogus emails sent this week on behalf of the health ministry erroneously declaring there had been confirmed coronavirus cases in Ukraine, when so far there have been none.

In another example, Honcharuk cited an incident of Russian officials asking a wagon-load of passengers traveling on a train from Kiev to Moscow to disembark after a Chinese woman with fever was found to be traveling on board.

The Ukrainian railway service said it has asked Russia for more information on the case.

Police detained 24 people in clashes with residents of a town in central Ukraine on Thursday, who feared they would be infected by Ukrainians who had been evacuated from China’s Hubei province to a sanatorium for a mandatory two week quarantine.

“The events that took place yesterday, in my opinion, are a consequence of, in particular, the information war that continues against our country, both from inside and out,” Honcharuk said.

Protesters in the town of Novi Sanzhary had clashed with police, burned tires and hurled projectiles at a convoy of buses carrying the evacuees to the medical facility.

The authorities had appealed for calm, saying the evacuees were screened to make sure they were not infected before being allowed to fly. Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska announced she would join those in quarantine.

Men stand on a balcony of a sanatorium where the evacuees from coronavirus-hit China’s Hubei province are quarantined, in the village of Novi Sanzhary in Poltava region, Ukraine February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

“Our health minister has agreed to stay with the citizens in this medical institution,” Honcharuk said. “This way her example will prove that there is no danger to Ukrainian citizens.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the protests had been stoked by “political support” but did not say from where. He appealed to Ukrainians not to vilify those returning from China.

“We constantly say that Ukraine is (a part of) Europe,” he said. “Yesterday, frankly, in some episodes it seemed that we are the Europe of the Middle Ages, unfortunately. Let’s not forget that we are all people.”

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Ros Russell

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