US-backed Syrian forces hand over 280 Iraqi and foreign ISIS detainees to Iraq

Men walk towards an area controlled by fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, after leaving Baghouz, Syria, on Feb 22, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have handed to Iraq 280 Iraqi and foreign detainees in recent days, Iraq's military said in a statement on Sunday (Feb 24).

An Iraqi military colonel confirmed to Reuters that 130 people were transferred on Sunday, adding to the 150 transferred last Thursday. They included the first known transfers of non-Iraqi detainees to Iraq, but it is unclear if they will remain in Iraqi custody.

There are meant to be more such handovers under an agreement to transfer a group of some 500 detainees held by the SDF in Syria, Iraqi military sources said.

Among the 280 were as many as 14 French citizens and six Arabs of unspecific nationality, according to one military source close to the handover process who commands troops near the Syrian border.

The Iraqi military has said only Iraqi nationals were handed over by the SDF.

Spokesmen for the SDF and US-backed coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.

The mayor of the Iraqi border town of Al-Qaim, Mr Ahmed al-Mahallawi, said last Thursday that some fighters' families had also been transferred.

"Early this morning, 10 trucks loaded with Daesh fighters and their families were handed over by SDF forces to the Iraqi army," he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Around 800 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State, including many Iraqis, are being held in Syria by the SDF, the group has said. More than 2,000 family members are also in camps, with dozens more arriving each day.

The fate of the detainees has become more pressing in recent days as US-backed fighters plan their assault to capture the last remnants of the group's self-styled caliphate.

The militant group still poses a threat in Iraq, and some western officials believe that the Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may still be hiding in the area.

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