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France repatriates five orphaned children of jihadists from Syria France repatriates five orphaned children of jihadists from Syria
(about 3 hours later)
The French government says it has repatriated five orphaned children of French jihadists from camps in north-east Syria, where a five-year offensive against Islamic State is drawing to a bloody close. France has repatriated five orphaned children of French jihadists from camps in north-east Syria, where a five-year offensive against Islamic State is drawing to a close.
The children, aged five or under, were flown home in a military aircraft and placed under medical supervision, the foreign ministry said. Among the children repatriated were the three sons of a French woman who died under Isis rule. Officials retrieved them from a camp in northern Syria where they were being held with as many as 3,000 other children of Isis families.
“The decision was taken in view of the situation of these very young children, who are particularly vulnerable,” the foreign ministry said, adding that the government was in touch with their French relatives. Al-Hawl camp is one of two detention centres that the British government says is too dangerous to visit. It is home to children of foreign nationals from more than 40 countries.
The government thanked the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led forces that have spearheaded the fight against IIsis, with backing from a US-led coalition, “for their cooperation, which made this outcome possible”. The newborn son of the British teenager Shamima Begum was among them until his death last Thursday, which provoked outrage over the UK’s reluctance to rescue him or any other children born to parents with links to Isis.
The mothers of all five children are dead and their fathers are either dead or missing, a diplomatic source said, adding that more children could follow but that their mothers would not be allowed to return. France has been adamant that citizens who fought alongside Isis in Syria or Iraq must face local justice. Syrian camps: vulnerable children of Isis ignored by the outside world
Like many other European countries, however, France had faced a quandary over what to do with the widows and children of jihadists who died in Syria or been taken prisoner there. The French intervention is likely to add weight to the criticism, given that Kurdish officials said they had agreed to the repatriation as soon as Paris lodged a request. Residents of the camp said the three children removed were Yasir, Shakhir and Jaffir, the sons of Julie Maninchedda and Martin Lemke, a German national held in al-Roj camp along with other alleged Isis fighters.
The situation has gained urgency as the battle against Isis enters its final days, with the Syrian Kurdish forces in charge of the camps urging the jihadists’ home countries to take their families back. The French foreign ministry acknowledged the rescue mission in a brief statement but did not disclose the children’s names. They had been cared for by a South African woman who has also become a caregiver for other vulnerable children. Lemke, who is accused of belonging to Isis’s feared security division, has had no access to his children since his capture. Two more of his wives remain in al-Hawl.
While expressing compassion for the children, France has been reluctant to be seen helping French women who travelled to Syria to join Isis, some of whom acted as cheerleaders for the group’s atrocities. The question of what to do with the children of Isis-affiliated families has vexed foreign governments. Most have been unwilling to repatriate them, primarily because of legal and security issues surrounding their parents. France has said it would bring as many as 130 children back to Paris, in many cases unaccompanied by mothers of fathers who face criminal charges. Maninchedda’s children are likely to be handed over to their maternal grandmother.
On Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron said the government was taking a “humanitarian”, case-by-case approach to the children but that its position on “adult fighters and jihadists who followed Isis to the Middle East had not changed”. The US has reiterated an earlier demand that its allies take back their foreign fighters and families, while at the same time appearing reluctant to heed its own counsel.
“They must be tried in the place they committed their crimes.” The US special representative for Syrian engagement, James Jeffrey, said: “We’re making a major campaign to have other countries take back prisoners to deal with them either through prosecution, through re-education, whatever their constitution and legal system allows, but we do not think it’s fair to keep these people simply under Syrian Democratic Forces control indefinitely.
Britain, too, has taken an uncompromising stance with female jihadists. It refused to take back a pregnant British teenager, Shamima Begum, who begged to return home, stripping her of her citizenship after interviews in which she appeared to show little remorse for being an Isis propagandist. “We think they’re secure while they’re there, but we think that this is an unfair division of labour, frankly, internationally by putting the burden on the SDF which is essentially a local fighting force. So thus our appeal to countries to take back both the families of fighters and the fighters themselves.”
Her newborn baby later died, triggering widespread criticism of the British government’s decision. Hoda Muthana 'deeply regrets' joining Isis and wants to return home
The Trump administration, however, has said it will not allow the return of the US national Hoda Muthana, who is also in al-Hawl camp, along with a young son born to a Tunisian jihadist.
The UK has so far refused to help to rescue the children of foreign fighters, saying the obligation lies with their parents to seek British consular access outside a war zone.
Jeffrey said the US had received positive responses to its request for allies to provide troop contingents in north-west Syria to help fill the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of some US troops. France and the UK are likely to form the backbone of any additional deployment, he said.
Donald Trump made a surprise announcement in December that the US would reduce its troop presence in Syria from 2,000 to about 400.
The US wants to form a protection zone for Syrian Kurds involved in the SDF. The predominantly Kurdish force has been at the forefront of the battle to defeat Isis, and it fears that without US or allied protection Turkey will attack Kurdish-held villages. Ankara does not distinguish between the Syrian Kurds and their separatist Turkish counterparts.
Islamic StateIslamic State
Middle East and North AfricaMiddle East and North Africa
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