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Paris says French militants held in Syria may be repatriated

France says American withdrawal from Syria risks the continued detention of IS members, who will face justice on return
An alleged IS militant in Kurdish captivity (Reuters)

French militants detained in Syria by Kurdish-led forces could be allowed to return home, France said Tuesday in a possible change of policy brought about by the planned withdrawal of US forces.

France is worried that French prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be released or escape after US President Donald Trump announced plans last month with withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

"Given the development of the military situation in northeast Syria, the American decisions, and to ensure the security of the French, we are examining all options to avoid the escape and scattering of these potentially dangerous individuals," the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

"If the forces who are guarding the French fighters took the decision to expel them to France they would be immediately placed in the hands of the law," it added.

Making clear that the militants - many of whom enlisted with Islamic State - would face the full weight of the law, the ministry added: "These people voluntarily joined a terrorist organisation which is fighting in the Levant, carried out attacks in France and continues to threaten us."

Speaking to BFM news channel earlier Tuesday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner linked the decision to the US withdrawal.

"The Americans are pulling out of Syria. There are currently people in prison [in a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria] and who are being held because the Americans are there and who will be freed," he said.

A French security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AFP news agency that 130 people could be repatriated, confirming a figure reported by the BFM news channel which said the group included men and women.

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The French foreign ministry said in its statement that it could "in no way confirm" the figure of 130.

A number of countries have expressed concern about the extradition of foreign fighters from Syria, over fears they could pose a security risk.

The UK has revoked the citizenship of a number of IS fighters, such as Alexanda Kotey and El-Shafee el-Sheikh.

Last month, following Trump's withdrawal announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported that discussions had taken place within the SDF suggesting that as many as 3,200 imprisoned IS fighters could potentially be released from their jails.

Although the SDF initially denied any such discussions were ongoing, a western official - speaking to the New York Times - confirmed that they were.

“The best result of terrible options is probably for the Syrian regime to take custody of these people,” he told the newspaper.

“If they are released, it’s a real disaster and major threat to Europe.”