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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The successful repatriation of four children and a woman related to Albanian nationals killed fighting with Islamic extremist groups in Syria “is a great step” to be followed by more repatriations, Albania's prime minister said Tuesday.
Edi Rama would not specify the number of Albanians still in Syria but said they have been identified and “we are well prepared to take the next step and to get back the other children.” Relatives who remained in Albania say 52 children are still in Syria.
“We have already made the right step to document everything and now we need to do the right push and I’m very optimistic that this will come very soon,” he said.
Rama spoke to The Associated Press at Beirut airport before flying out with the five -- a woman, her three sons and another teenager — who were repatriated, after a year of negotiations, from the Syrian camp of al-Hol in the war-ravaged country's northeast.
They landed in Tirana later Tuesday.
Rama said the group would be given help to deal with their trauma, reintegrate and resume their normal life.
Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj, who was also in Beirut, said 20 other Albanian women and children have been interviewed and are expected to be repatriated. He said camp authorities are reluctant to release adults who may have been involved in criminal activities but agreed to let the woman go as she has severe health problems.
A few hundred Albanians joined the Islamic State and other groups fighting in Syria and Iraq in the early 2010s. Many were killed, and their widows and children are stuck in Syrian camps.
Rama said Lebanon's intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim played a key role in the repatriation. The official has been instrumental in negotiations that secured the release of hostages from Syria.
Rama said two members of Albania's police terror squad stayed four weeks in the area and entered the refugee camp where they contacted and interviewed the five and arranged their repatriation.
“I believe sooner rather than later we shall have the other part of the group back in Albania,” said Rama.
The operation started last year after the Italian government, Red Cross and Red Crescent repatriated an 11-year old Albanian boy who had been taken to Syria by his mother when she joined the Islamic State group. The boy became stuck there after his mother's death.
Fadi Tawil reported from Beirut.