The Solomon Islands said it will repatriate hundreds of students stranded in the Philippines despite fears their return will torpedo the Pacific nation's rare coronavirus-free status.
More than 400 students have been stuck, with many complaining of difficult conditions, since the island nation closed its borders in March.
Their return has become a headache for officials in one of the few Covid-free countries in the world, while the Philippines has recorded more than 260,000 cases.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said all students -- including 12 who have tested positive for the virus -- would be repatriated, and that officials were working with the Red Cross.
"We look forward to seeing our students home soon, and be assured, the Solomon Islands is still Covid-19 free," he said in a televised national address Wednesday.
Flights from Manila to Honiara are planned on September 27 and 29. A third on October 24 will carry students who tested positive, after they recover and undergo quarantine.
Students in Manila blamed the positive tests on the government's failure to bring them home.
"Our worst fear has now been realised," said one engineering student, who asked not to be named, blaming the infections on the crowded conditions.
Sogavare said delays were caused by lockdowns in the Philippines and paperwork, including missing passports and expired visas.
Philippines Red Cross chairman and CEO Richard J. Gordon told AFP his organisation was providing welfare services to the 12 students who tested positive.
"These include psychosocial support to the students and their dependents, provision of quarantine kits composed of masks, vitamins and disinfecting supplies and materials, and provision of food packs," Gordon said.
All students will need to test negative for the virus at least three times before they are allowed to travel to the Solomons.