AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria on Wednesday began a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. as lockdown measures to counter the spread of coronavirus were extended, residents and state media said.

The government had already ordered the closure of shops, markets and public transport, allowing only pharmacies to open and limited deliveries of bread to prevent crowding near bakeries.

The Health Ministry said on Wednesday confirmed cases had risen to five after it reported its first case on Sunday. Medics and experts are sceptical of the figures, saying the authorities are covering up many more cases. The authorities deny this.

"The curfew is serious and any violator will be detained and face legal measures," Interior Minister Mohamad al Rahmoun was quoted as saying on state television.

State media showed the main squares in the capital Damascus empty of cars and people.

Medics say the country is at high risk of a major outbreak because of a fragile health system devastated by a nine-year war and lack of sufficient equipment to detect the virus.

Opposition figures and independent politicians point to Damascus' strong ties with Iran, the worst affected country in the region, as a source of possible contagion.

They say the virus is coming from some of members of Iranian-backed militias who are fighting alongside the Syrian army. Iran has a huge presence in Syria with thousands of militiamen who control large areas and towns.

Syria says it has suspended its incoming and outgoing passenger flights as part of measures to curb the virus.

Western intelligence sources say Iranian-backed forces continue to fly into Syria and cross from the Albukamal border crossing, near Iraq.

Iran has imposed social distancing measures to combat the outbreak in the country, including travel restrictions.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

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