SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea is sending military aircraft on Sunday to replace the entire 300-member crew of a navy destroyer on an anti-piracy mission off East Africa after nearly 70 of them tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.
Two multi-role aerial tankers will bring home 300 sailors aboard the 4,400-ton-class destroyer Munmu the Great, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Ministry officials said, requesting anonymity citing department rules.
They said 68 sailors have so far tested positive and the results on 200 of the 300 crew are still pending.
Fifteen sailors are hospitalized in an African country that the officials did not name, while the rest were on the destroyer. None has been vaccinated for COVID-19 as they left South Korea in early February, before the start of the vaccination campaign, according to health and military officials.
The cause of infections hasn’t been officially announced. But military authorities suspect the virus might have spread when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.
The replacement crew of 150 navy personnel will arrive aboard the aerial tankers and move to the destroyer that’s anchored at sea to sail it back to South Korea on a journey that takes about a month, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Local media reported that the infected sailors will arrive home as early as Tuesday night.
South Korea has taken part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. Officials said the Munmu the Great was to be replaced with another destroyer next month following a six-month rotational deployment. The second destroyer is on its way to to the area.
On Sunday, South Korea’s health authorities reported 1,454 new cases, taking the country’s total to 177,951 with 2,057 deaths.
South Korea has recently imposed its toughest distancing rules on its populous capital region, where most of the recent cases have been found. Authorities are considering more stringent restrictions in other areas as well.