14 French, Dutch children repatriated from Syria

Paris (AFP) - Twelve children of French jihadists, most of them orphans, were flown home Monday from camps in Syria, along with two Dutch orphans who were handed over to the Netherlands, the foreign ministry said in Paris.

The latest repatriations of foreigners from northeast Syria involved a group of children that were "isolated and particularly vulnerable", the French ministry said, adding that some were sick and malnourished.

Since the fall of the Islamic State's "caliphate" in March, the international community has been torn over what to do with the families of foreign jihadists captured or killed in Syria and Iraq.

The 12 French children -- the oldest aged 10, according to Syrian Kurdish officials -- had been held in two camps housing tens of thousands of people who fled recent fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group.

They were handed over to French and Dutch representatives by Syrian Kurdish authorities, said Abdelkarim Omar, a senior Kurdish official.

Ten of the French children are orphans and the other two are "particularly vulnerable," -- a girl aged 10 and a three-year-old by -- travelling with their Franco-Moroccan mother Saïda El Ghaza, who has agreed to be separated from them.

- Huge number of jihadists and famiies -

The transfer, which took place Sunday in the town of Ain Issa, near Syria's border with Turkey, marks the latest step in efforts to resolve the problem posed by the huge numbers stranded in Syrian camps.

The returned children will undergo a thorough medical before being placed in the care of the social services, the French foreign ministry said.

Last week, two American women and six children from suspected jihadist families were repatriated.

France has one of the largest contingents of jihadists who were captured or turned themselves in, together with their families, in the final stages of the US-backed Kurdish assault on the last fragment of IS's "caliphate".

Paris has been loath to take back French fighters or their wives, seeing them as a security threat and arguing that they should face local justice.

Samia Maktouf, a lawyer representing some of the French jihadists' families, welcomed the latest repatriation as a "very important step".

"It's about the security of the children, whose lives were in danger. They are French, they have their place in France," she told AFP.

But Marie Dose, another lawyer representing French families, called the repatriations a drop in the ocean which leaves other children "who are guilty of nothing" subject to "inexplicable and unjustifiable discrimination".

- 'Inhumane treatment' -

Larger than expected numbers of families emerged from the ruins of the last IS enclave and the fate of tens of thousands of them remains unclear.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last month estimated the number of French nationals living in Kurdish camps at 400-450.

The government had already repatriated five orphans from Syria in mid-March, as well as a three-year-old girl whose mother was sentenced to life imprisonment in Iraq.

The foreign ministry on Monday said it could carry out a third such operation if it identified other vulnerable children, amid reports that plans are afoot for further transfers in the coming days.

France's human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon last month accused the government of treating the women and children in an "inhumane and degrading" manner.

The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria is not officially recognised and the legal framework for any repatriations and transfers is unclear at best.

- Slow trickle -

The biggest returns so far have been to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kosovo, while countries such as Russia, Sudan, Norway and the United States have also started taking back some of their nationals.

But the movement has been sluggish and Al-Hol, the main camp in the Kurdish region, is still bursting with more than 70,000 people from at least 40 different countries, mostly displaced from neighbouring Iraq and Syria itself.

The fate of suspected IS fighters held in Kurdish prisons is even less clear, with few European countries willing to bring them back and the Kurds unable to give them trials.

Eleven French nationals have been sentenced to death in Iraq, triggering an outcry at home after lightning trials which rights groups say make a mockery of international justice standards.

Paris has called on Iraqi authorities to commute the sentences.

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