Iran begins lifting restrictions after brief virus lockdown

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran began reopening government offices Saturday after a brief nationwide lockdown to help contain the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, which has killed more than 4,300 people in the country.

Authorities had ordered most government agencies and all non-essential businesses to remain closed for a week after the Nowruz holiday ended on April 4.

In Egypt, meanwhile, police used tear gas to disperse a group of villagers who tried to stop the burial of a physician who died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus. The villagers feared that the burial would spread contagion.

Government offices outside Iran’s capital, Tehran, reopened Saturday with a third of all employees working from home, state media reported. Women who have young children were given priority in deciding who works remotely. Businesses outside the capital were also allowed to reopen Saturday, the first day of the work week.

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Businesses in Tehran will be allowed to reopen next Saturday, provided they register with authorities and follow guidelines on social distancing set out by the Health Ministry. Government offices in the capital will reopen with two-thirds of employees coming in.

The Health Ministry meanwhile reported another 125 deaths, bringing the overall toll to 4,357. Iran has reported more than 70,000 confirmed cases, and authorities say more than 40,000 have recovered.

The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in elderly patients or those with underlying health problems.

For weeks, Iran declined to impose the kind of wide-scale lockdowns adopted by other Middle Eastern countries, even as the number of confirmed cases and fatalities steadily climbed. The virus has also infected and killed a number of senior Iranian officials.

Authorities have defended their response, saying they have to consider the economic impact of any quarantine measures since the country is under severe U.S. sanctions. President Donald Trump imposed heavy sanctions, including on oil exports, after withdrawing the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The U.S. has offered humanitarian aid to help Iran combat the outbreak, but Iran’s leaders have rejected it, instead demanding that the sanctions be lifted.

In a separate development, Iran executed one of the alleged ringleaders of a prison break last month, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. It said Mostafa Salimi had been on death row for killing two policemen during a prison riot in 2004.

Around 70 convicts escaped from a prison in the western city of Saqqez on March 27 after fighting with the guards. Iran has temporarily released around 90,000 prisoners, but those held in Saqqez were not among them.

IRNA quoted a local prosecutor as saying authorities had arrested 65 of the escaped prisoners and were still searching for the other nine.

In Egypt, residents of the village of Shubra el-Bahou in the Nile Delta blocked the road to the cemetery to prevent the physician’s burial, according to Egyptian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. At least 20 people were arrested for allegedly inciting villagers to prevent the physician’s burial, the officials said.

The physician died at a quarantined hospital in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and her body was being transferred to her husband’s village for burial. The officials say police fired tear gas after the villagers halted the ambulance carrying the body.

There were no reports of any serious injuries.

Ahmed el-Sayed, a village resident, said the police intervened after security and health officials failed to persuade the villagers to open the road.

Egypt has reported 135 fatalities among around 1,800 confirmed cases.

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Associated Press writer Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.

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