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Malaysia's biggest palm oil state shuts some estates after virus outbreak

A truck carrying oil palm fruits passes through Felda Sahabat plantation in Lahad Datu in Malaysia's state of Sabah in Borneo

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's Sabah state has ordered the closure of palm oil plantations in three districts after a coronavirus outbreak originating from a religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur, which is also linked to nearly a thousand cases of the virus.

The suspension comes as the world's second-biggest palm oil producer reported 106 new coronavirus cases, taking the total tally of infections to 1,624 - the highest in Southeast Asia.

Sabah, the state with Malaysia's highest palm oil output, will suspend operations at palm oil plantations and factories in the districts of Tawau, Lahad Datu and Kinabatangan from this week until the end of the month, a notice issued by the Sabah state government said on Tuesday.

"The closure of the oil palm plantations and factories is aimed at preventing the movement of plantation workers as there were some workers in Tawau, Lahad Datu and Kinabatangan who have tested positive for COVID-19," the state government wrote.

Sabah, located in the east of the country, accounts for about 25% of palm oil production in Malaysia.

Plantation company Sabah Softwoods Berhad (SSB) confirmed that seven employees had tested positive for the virus.

"The first case is an imam who attended the religious gathering held at Masjid Sri Petaling in February," Chief Executive Hattah Jaafar told Reuters.

"SSB management had immediately instructed to lockdown the estate to halt operations and restrict movement of staff in order to stop any further spreading of the virus," he said.

Malaysia has said that 16,000 people attended the religious gathering held between Feb. 27 and March 1. Most of the participants were Malaysian residents but there were also attendees from 25 countries.

The health ministry on Tuesday said that the recent surge in infections in Malaysia could be because participants at the religious gathering may have spread it in the community.

The ministry said the cluster linked to that event also involved people who had been to weddings and mosques.

(Reporting by Mei Mei Chu and Joseph Sipalan; writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Giles Elgood, Raju Gopalakrishnan and David Goodman)