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HK frees 1st flu victim, hotel quarantine crowd

Authorities in Hong Kong released some 280 people from a week-long quarantine at an upscale hotel late yesterday, with guests towing suitcases and beaming following the lockdown imposed after Asia's first swine flu case was traced there.

The Mexican swine flu patient who prompted the quarantine was also released from a Hong Kong hospital yesterday after a week-long stay.

Newly free guests of the Metropark Hotel walked to waiting buses, divided from waiting reporters by a security cordon - though some shouted out and others spoke out by phone or e-mail.

"I'm happy! I love Hong Kong people!" shouted one of the guests, a South Korean businessman, before breaking into song and hugging a policeman as he stepped out. He did not give his name.

Hong Kong authorities imposed the quarantine on all guests and employees at the hotel in the downtown Wanchai district last week after it was discovered the 25-year old Mexican swine flu carrier had stayed there.

"It feels very good to get out," Indian businessman Kevin Ireland told The Associated Press by telephone.

The 45-year-old New Delhi resident said he plans to check into another hotel in Hong Kong and go out to dinner with friends.

Critics say the quarantine was a "politically calculated overreaction," but the Hong Kong government has repeatedly defended the measure as necessary to contain the virus. The government is also wary of repeating the fallout of SARS, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong in 2003.

"I think most people felt that it was too much," said Ireland, expressing some annoyance about missing business meetings in India and running up a high mobile phone bill in Hong Kong.

But, he added, "I think finally the government must do what the government must do."

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang greeted hotel staff after most guests dispersed.

"We all understand the boredom, the frustration they experienced during the quarantine period," Tsang told reporters. "We are thankful for the sacrifice they have made for the sake of public health."

Some guests had initially complained about being trapped, but yesterday many seemed upbeat. A picture posted on the Metropark's Facebook page yesterday showed guests slipping bills into a tip box for hotel staffers.

Hong Kong officials also apologized to Metropark guests and offered them two extra days of hotel lodging after the quarantine and perks like Hong Kong Disneyland tickets, restaurant vouchers and movie tickets as a gesture of thanks.

"The general consensus is how great the staff - including hotel staff, police, health workers - have been," another guest, James Parer said in an e-mail to the AP.

The 38-year-old businessman from Brisbane, Australia, said guests celebrated their last night under quarantine on Thursday by cracking open a bottle of champagne on the roof.

"Drinks have been flowing quite freely," Parer said.

The Hong Kong government imposed the quarantine after diagnosing the 25-year-old Mexican who flew to the city via Shanghai a day earlier.

Ireland said he was understanding of the decision to quarantine the hotel, adding that the incident may have been blown out of proportion.

"You can't blame these people for being a little paranoid," Ireland said in a phone interview, referring to Hong Kong's previous SARS outbreak in 2003.


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