BEIJING (Reuters) - Mexico announced plans on Monday to send a plane to retrieve dozens of its nationals confined across China, which quarantined them as a protective measure against a deadly new strain of flu.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa accused China at the weekend of discrimination after Beijing ordered dozens of Mexicans into seclusion across the country, although only one, a man now in Hong Kong, has been found to have the H1N1 flu.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu rejected the criticism on Monday, saying isolation was the correct procedure.
"The measures concerned are not directed at Mexican citizens and there is no discrimination," Ma said in a statement issued on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn) on Monday.
"This was purely a medical quarantine issue," Ma said, adding that Mexico should "give full understanding to the measures adopted by China and handle this matter objectively and calmly".
But a spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Beijing said her government planned to send a plane to China to take back confined nationals and other Mexicans who want to leave.
She said that as of Sunday, about 70 Mexican nationals were in confinement in China, mostly Beijing and Shanghai. It was unclear when the flight would arrive and if the Mexicans who want to leave will all be allowed to take it.
PATCHY MEDICAL INFRASTRUCTURE
For now, the confined Mexicans have become players in a larger drama about how far governments should go to stifle any fears that the H1N1 virus could creep through their borders.
China's vast population and patchy medical infrastructure make it vulnerable should the virus take hold. But even Mexicans residing outside their country have been held by Chinese authorities, the Mexican embassy spokeswoman said.
She spoke on condition her name was not used.
At the Guo Men Hotel in Beijing on Monday, the embassy ferried luggage, bags of food, and board games to 10 of its nationals inside, guarded by gates and security staff.
A China Southern Airlines charter flight to Mexico to retrieve Chinese nationals stranded there was cancelled on Sunday after "the airline was unable to reach a landing arrangement", the China Daily reported on Monday.
The row has strained what had been a warming relationship. But with Beijing courting Latin America as a trade and diplomatic partner, the damage appears unlikely to last.
Mexico is China's second biggest trade partner in Latin America -- behind Brazil -- and its biggest export market there, according to Chinese statistics.
In 2008, bilateral trade reached $17.6 billion in value, a rise of 17.3 percent on 2007, with China having a big surplus based on electronics, textiles and other consumer goods.
Mexico said on Sunday that its flu epidemic had passed the worst and experts said the virus might be no more severe than normal flu.
The one Mexican in China found to have the H1N1 virus arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday after passing through Shanghai.
Many of the confined Mexicans were on his flight to Shanghai, but China's Health Ministry has said no other passengers on that flight and still in China had shown symptoms of the flu.
China is also confining many of its own citizens recently returned from Mexico or other parts that have seen flu outbreaks.
Only one death has been confirmed outside Mexico -- a Mexican toddler who was visiting the United States.
After China's 2003 SARS epidemic, Beijing punished officials blamed for concealing the threat. This time the government does not want to appear hesitant before a jumpy public.
"Chinese people have painful memories of SARS," the Global Times, a popular Chinese tabloid, said, citing a scholar. "Mexico should grasp this point."
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