Belgium takes back six mothers, 10 children from Syria

A photo from March 27, 2018, shows Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas berthed at a port in Malaga, Spain. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Ten Belgian children and six mothers have been recovered from a prison camp for captured jihadists in Syria and flown home to Belgium, the government said Saturday (July 17).

The operation was the biggest such repatriation since the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in 2019, and follows Belgium's decision to secure the return of under-12s.

The adult mothers were taken into custody on their return to Belgium late Friday, and child protection authorities will interview the minors and assign them to social services.

"The priority has always been to get the children to safety. All the operations were carried out according to the pre-established plan," Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said.

The premier thanked Belgian officials and "the Iraqi authorities, the Kurdistan Regional Government as well as the local de facto authorities in north-eastern Syria."

The group is from the camp in Roj, in north-east Syria, where surviving suspected members of the group are being held under the supervision of Kurdish militia.

Hundreds of volunteer fighters from Europe travelled to Syria and Iraq during ISIS group's campaign. Many died, but others, including women and children, are trapped in camps.

Their presence has proven an embarrassment for many European governments, reluctant to allow citizens with suspected extremist ties to return to their homelands.

But Mr de Croo announced in March that his country would do what it could to secure the return of the youngest, describing it as a matter of national security.

Belgium's extremism monitoring agency Ocam says mothers and children who have spent time in the camps need to be kept under watch, which is easier if they are on Belgian soil.

Ms Heidi De Pauw, of the Child Focus NGO, praised the "courage" of the Belgian government and said she was happy the children had been able to "leave the dangers of these war zones".

"We hope that they will be able to live out their childhood anonymously and that their rights as children, such as access to education and health care, will be respected," she said.

The effort to recover the group took place in several stages and began in June, when a consular mission went to Roj to collect blood samples to verify the parentage of the children and their Belgian nationality.

For security reasons, it was not possible to visit the larger Al-Hol camp where many foreign fighters are still present.

Belgium, along with France, is among the European countries that saw the largest number of foreign fighters leave after the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011.

From 2012 onwards, more than 400 Belgians left to fight in the ranks of jihadist organisations.

These returns could only be organised in small numbers over the last two years since the defeat of ISIS.

Earlier this year, Belgian researchers estimated that about 40 Belgian minors were still in Syria.

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