July 19 (UPI) -- More than 80% of a South Korean anti-piracy unit serving a mission off the coast of Somalia were found to have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and were airlifted out Monday.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 247 out of 301 crew members were confirmed for COVID-19. Among those infected, 16 troops of the Cheonghae Unit were seriously ill and had been admitted to hospital care, local newspaper Segye Ilbo reported Monday. The hospital and the country where the troops were staying have not been disclosed.
Seoul said last week aerial tankers will be deployed to airlift all troops from the 4,400-ton Munmu the Great destroyer. Two KC-330 aerial refueling tankers arrived near the Horn of Africa Monday afternoon, local time, reports said.
South Korea's defense ministry has said the unit left the country in February unvaccinated. The government has defended the decision, citing lack of vaccine availability at the time.
South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh reported Monday anti-epidemic measures might not have been properly enforced during the mission.
The destroyer entered ports to load military supplies. At least one soldier began to show cold-like symptoms afterward but the individual was neither tested nor quarantined on board the destroyer. The unit then went ahead with COVID-19 tests for 40 crew members who all tested negative, but stopped short of testing the entire ship, the report said.
A South Korean military official told Hankyoreh preparations were made in January for the ship to carry COVID-19 Antigen self-test kits for rapid results, but the kits were not taken on board.
South Korean lawmaker Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the main opposition slammed the administration of President Moon Jae-in Monday for not prioritizing vaccinations for troops deployed overseas. The defense ministry had pledged to fast-track vaccines for the military, the lawmaker said.
Ha said Seoul is "playing with words" and that Defense Minister Suh Wook should be "fired immediately."
The Cheonghae unit is expected to arrive in South Korea Tuesday afternoon, including the 16 troops who were hospitalized. All crew members will be transferred to local hospitals upon landing, according to Yonhap.