Russian plane takes off for US with coronavirus help on board

Putin offered Trump 'humanitarian aid' in the hope the US president would do the same for Russia when it needs it.

    A Russian military transport plane took off from an airfield outside Moscow on Wednesday and headed for the United States with a load of medical equipment and masks to help Washington fight the coronavirus pandemic.

    President Vladimir Putin offered Russian help in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two leaders discussed how best to respond to the virus.

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    The flight, which was organised by the Russian defence ministry, is likely to be unpopular with some critics of Trump who have urged him to keep his distance from Putin and who argue that Moscow uses such aid as a geopolitical and propaganda tool to advance its influence, something the Kremlin denies.

    "Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday night. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

    Russia's Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday showed the plane taking off from a military airbase outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

    Confirmed US cases have surged to 189,000 and 4,000 people have already died there from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

    'Mutual assistance'

    Russia's official tally of coronavirus cases rose to 2,777 on Wednesday, a one-day increase of 440. Twenty-four people have so far died, authorities say. Some doctors have questioned the accuracy of the figure given.

    Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to election interference, something Russia denies.

    Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said Moscow hoped the US might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time comes.

    "It is important to note that when offering assistance to US colleagues, the president assumes that when US manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary," Peskov was cited as saying.

    Peskov, who complained about difficulties expediting the aid to the US thrown up by some US officials, said Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because "at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception ... there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance".

    Trump said earlier this week: "Russia sent us a very, very large planeload of things, medical equipment, which was very nice."

    Publicity coup

    Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of the coronavirus, exposing the European Union's failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

    Moscow said the aid for Italy included some 100 virus specialists with experience in dealing with Ebola and swine fever, but Italian media have reported much of it was not useful in the fight against the virus.

    Last month, Russia said it sent nearly 1,000 coronavirus testing kits to former Soviet states and countries including Iran and North Korea.

    Authorities in Moscow unveiled a smartphone app designed to keep tabs on people who have been ordered to stay at home because of the coronavirus, and Russia on Wednesday expanded its lockdown to cover more of its sprawling territory.

    The app is still in the testing phase, an official, Eduard Lysenko, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

    Moscow is also preparing to roll out a city-wide QR-code system where each resident who registers online will be assigned a unique code they can show to police officers if stopped when going to the shops or the pharmacy, said Lysenko.

    Eight southern Russian regions rolled out similar lockdown measures to Moscow on Wednesday, meaning more than 60 of Russia's more than 80 regions are now in a state of partial lockdown.

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    SOURCE: News agencies