American IS-affiliated women, children repatriated to US: Syria Kurds
Two American women and six children had been repatriated to the United States from a camp housing thousands who fled the Islamic State group “caliphate”, Syria's Kurds said on Wednesday.
The repatriation was carried out "at the request of the US government and based... on the free and voluntary desire of the American citizens to return to their country without any pressure or coercion," spokesman Kamal Akef said in a statement.
Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is home to nearly 74,000 people, among them wives and children of suspected IS fighters.
The camp is bursting with Syrians, Iraqis and people from more than 40 other nations who fled successive US-backed assaults led by the Kurds against the last bastions of the Islamic State group's “caliphate”.
In March, the United States said it was not looking at an international court to try Islamic State militants and urged countries to repatriate them, just hours after Syria's Kurds proposed a tribunal.
Repatriation is a sensitive issue for Western nations such as France and Britain, which have experienced attacks by homegrown extremists and have little interest in seeing more return.
Britain has gone so far as to strip Islamic State proponents of citizenship.
In the most high-profile US case, the United States earlier this year said that Hoda Muthana, a young woman from Alabama who joined the Islamic State group, was not a citizen due to her father's former diplomatic status.
That came just a month after, British authorities caused a stir after stripping 19-year-old Shamima Begum of her citizenship despite having a new-born baby. Begum, who ran away from home to join IS when she was 15, had been holed up along with thousands of other women and children that had fled Baghouz, in the al-Hol camp.
Begum's child was confirmed dead by Kurdish officials in Syria just days after she was stripped of her citizenship but the UK said it would not have been able to repatriate the baby of IS member Shamima Begum citing safety concerns.
Earlier this week, Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria started sending home 800 Syrian women and children who had been evacuated from the Islamic State group's so-called "caliphate".
An AFP correspondent in Al-Hol saw at least 17 buses leaving the area with women and children on board, en route to their hometowns in the province of Raqqa.
"800 civilians have started leaving the Al-Hol camp aboard buses taking them to their hometowns in Raqqa and Tabqa," said an official with the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria.
"In the coming days, there will be other batches of civilians who will (also) be taken to liberated and safe areas," Sheikhmous Ahmed told AFP, referring to towns and villages recaptured from IS.
Monday's transfer follows an agreement brokered by the Kurdish administration and Arab tribal leaders during a meeting in the town of Ain Issa last month.
It is to be the first in a larger wave of releases that aim to empty Al-Hol, whose population is currently estimated at 74,000, of its Syrian residents.
Some of the evacuees from IS areas have been repentant, but others have made clear their allegiance to IS remains intact, turning Al-Hol into a tinderbox.
The vast Arab regions in the Euphrates River valley that were IS's heartland are only loosely controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
The US-backed force does not have the manpower to fully administer the areas it conquered.
An operation launched by the SDF in September 2018 was wrapped up in March with a final victory against diehard jihadists holed up in the village of Baghouz.
While the Kurds have started sending Syrians back to their hometowns, the fate of non-Syrians remains unclear.
Plans are afoot for the repatriation of thousands of Iraqis who also live in Al-Hol.
Even more complex from a diplomatic point of view is the plight of the many Westerners who travelled to the region in support of the "caliphate" after its proclamation in 2014.
On Monday, the Kurdish authorities announced that five orphaned children from Norway were handed over to a visiting delegation.
Norwegian media outlets reported that the five orphans were siblings born to a 30-year-old Norwegian mother and a 31-year-old African father.
They said the mother, who travelled to Syria in 2015, was missing and the father believed to have been killed.
Other countries such as France and Belgium have much larger contingents of nationals still being held by the Kurds in northeast Syria.
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