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UPDATE 2-Coronavirus grounds Egypt wheat inspectors
* Egypt reinstated travel for its wheat inspectors in December
* Inspectors previously barred from travel over import rule row
* One delegation in France despite coronavirus spread (Adds details, quotes)
By Nadine Awadalla and Maha El Dahan
CAIRO/DUBAI, March 17 (Reuters) - Egypt, the world's largest wheat buyer, has halted travelling by its wheat inspectors, the head of the agriculture quarantine body told Reuters on Tuesday, after the country decided to shut its air traffic to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Delegations currently in Russia and Ukraine will return and be put under a 15-day quarantine. Only one delegation will remain in France pending further announcements on a curfew or travel restrictions by Paris, quarantine chief Ahmed al-Attar said.
"The delegation has been in France for two days and is expected to continue its work there, inspecting a large wheat cargo for 17 days. But if France announces a curfew or a travel ban, they need to return quickly," quarantine chief Attar said.
The state grains buyer, the General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC) stipulated in December that suppliers send a delegation of inspectors from the state's agricultural quarantine to check cargoes of wheat at their port of origin after a halt in the process for around two years.
GASC had bought a 60,000 tonne wheat cargo from France for a mid-March shipping period.
Some suppliers say getting cargoes inspected at ports of origin by Egyptian government inspectors makes acceptance of the wheat on arrival at Egyptian ports a smoother process.
The inspectors' all expenses-paid trips, funded by exporters, had been scrapped in 2017 after a lengthy battle over Egypt's wheat import regulations that rattled grain markets. Inspections were instead handed to private companies abroad.
Some quarantine inspectors challenged the new system in court, saying contaminants hazardous to plants and animals had been allowed into the country since the decision to scrap their travel.
The December decision to allow them to travel again took the grain market by surprise, but it may be have been short-lived.
Egypt said on Monday it intended to shut down air traffic starting Thursday until March 31.
Four sources with direct knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named, said the delegation to France travelled on Tuesday morning, contradicting the timescale given by the quarantine chief.
Attar said the delegation travelled two days ago and would return on Thursday, before Egypt's flight ban, if Paris announced more stringent measures, but barring that would stay in France until March 31.
Egypt has registered 196 cases of the novel coronavirus and six deaths. In France it has killed 148 people and infected more than 6,600.
"What happens if the situation in France gets even worse and there are no more hotels willing to take them up or if they get sick and don't find a hospital bed?" a trader who declined to be named asked. (Reporting By Moamen Saeed and Nadine Awadalla in Cairo and Maha El Dahan in Dubai; editing by Barbara Lewis)
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