By Emma Farge
DAKAR (Reuters) - Regional humanitarian hub Senegal said on Friday it had blocked a regional U.N. aid plane from landing and was banning all further flights to and from countries affected by Ebola, potentially hampering the emergency response to the epidemic.
A number of aid agencies have their regional headquarters in politically stable Senegal. Both medical charity MSF and the United Nations, which are leading efforts to contain a West African Ebola epidemic that has killed at least 1,350 people, had planned to operate regional flights from the country.
The World Health Organisation has repeatedly said it does not recommend travel or trade restrictions for countries affected by Ebola, saying such measures could heighten food and supply shortages.
"We have strengthened our protection strategy by suspending services that link us to countries affected by Ebola since yesterday," said Senegal's tourism and air transport minister, Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr.
Senegal's southern land border with Guinea had also been shut, he said.
Dakar's interior ministry said that the closure referred only to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and not to Nigeria, where substantially fewer cases of Ebola have been reported. Senegal has reported no confirmed cases of Ebola.
Asked by Reuters whether there would be exceptions for humanitarian flights, Health and Social Action Minister Awa Marie Coll Seck said: "When we adopt new measures we implement them and afterwards we will see if there are exceptions."
A regional flight coming to the capital Dakar carrying aid workers from Liberia's capital Monrovia via Freetown and Conakry was prevented from landing on Thursday, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Sarr confirmed that the flight was prevented from landing. He said the plane's flight origin had been given as Mali's Bamako and not Monrovia.
A source at the World Food Programme, which operates the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service flights, confirmed that its flights would be suspended until further notice. The daily regional service began on Aug. 16 and three flights were due to leave from Dakar this week, a provisional schedule showed.
Medecins sans Frontieres had also sought permission to operate a regional service but Senegal refused permission, citing "elevated risk", according to a document issued by its aviation body ANACIM dated 21 August and seen by Reuters.
"This is a catastrophe. We need a better response but there's no way for us to do it," said an official at an organization affected by the flight disruption.
The current Ebola epidemic is the worst in history and has hit hardest in countries whose health systems are ill-equipped to cope with it. Like Sierra Leone and Liberia where new cases are rising fastest, Senegal has a low ratio of doctors to its population with just one for more than 17,000 people, according to political risk research company DaMina Advisors.
Other African countries have tightened travel restrictions this week in an effort to contain the outbreak. Chad closed its border with Nigeria and South Africa said it was banning all travellers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from entering its territory, barring its own citizens. [ID:nL5N0QR4VB]
(Editing by Joe Bavier/Mark Heinrich)