Istanbul (AFP) - A group of British medical students of Sudanese origin who went missing after travelling to Turkey are feared to have crossed into Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group as doctors, reports and sources said on Sunday.
The families of the students have travelled to the Turkey-Syria border in a desperate appeal for them to return home before it is too late, a Turkish opposition MP said.
According to reports in Britain's The Guardian newspaper and the BBC, nine young students flew to Istanbul from the Sudanese capital Khartoum on March 12 and then overland by bus towards Syria.
They have been joined by two other medics from the United States and Canada, also of Sudanese origin, the BBC said.
A Turkish MP from the Republican People's Party (CHP) Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, who represents the Hatay region bordering Syria, wrote on his Facebook page that he was helping the families in their search.
"Eleven doctors -- nine British and two Sudanese -- came to Turkey a week ago to join ISIS," he said, using another name for IS.
"The families of the young people have been in Turkey to search for them and bring them back," he added.
"Our greatest hope is to save the doctors from ISIS and reunite them with their families."
Ediboglu said the families had travelled to the city of Gaziantep, which has been seen as a key gateway for militants travelling to Syria.
He posted photographs of the nine British citizens -- five men and four women -- some proudly posing in academic dress on graduation day.
- 'Top students' -
Ahmed Babikir, students' dean at Khartoum's private University of Medical Sciences, told AFP that five students university were missing after travelling to Turkey.
"They all have British passports and are of Sudanese origin," he said.
"Their families have travelled after them to stop them from joining IS. We are not able to confirm they have crossed into Syria."
He said they had been studying medicine and pharmacology and were all "top students". After graduation, one of the students had been expected to qualify as "the youngest surgeon" in Sudan.
The Guardian said on its website that the alarm was raised when one of the youngest members of the group, Lena Maumoon Abdulqadir, 19, sent a brief WhatsApp message to her sister in Britain.
The message contained a picture of the teen smiling in a selfie picture, saying they were in Turkey and on their way to Syria.
The British Foreign Office meanwhile said: "We are providing consular assistance to their families and we have informed the Turkish police to try and ascertain their whereabouts."
A British Home Office source told the Guardian that they would not automatically face prosecution if they returned to Britain under anti-terror legislation, so long as they could prove they have not been fighting.
Turkey has repeatedly been accused by its Western partners of not doing enough to halt the flow of extremists aiming to join IS jihadists, who have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Ankara was sharply criticised over the failure to stop three British teenage girls who crossed the Turkey-Syria border to join IS in February. But there have been signs that Turkey is responding to the criticism.
In the last week, it has deported back to Britain a young British woman and three male teenagers suspected of trying to travel to Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that 1,700 would-be foreign militants have been detained and deported to stop them going to Syria to join IS.
Sudanese Vice President Hasabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman said at a conference in Khartoum: "Sudan is paying close attention to this matter in its entirety."