Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

French foreign minister talks trying thousands of ISIS suspects in Iraq

The minister is in Iraq to discuss a mechanism to avoid European nations repatriating suspected militants

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al Hakim and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian give a press conference in Baghdad. AFP
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al Hakim and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian give a press conference in Baghdad. AFP

France's top diplomat held talks in Baghdad on Thursday about transferring foreign militants from northern Syria, where a Turkish offensive has triggered fears of mass jailbreaks, to be tried in Iraq.

European governments are worried that the Turkish operation will allow the escape of some of the 12,000 suspected ISIS group fighters – including thousands of foreigners – held by Syrian Kurds.

The issue was top of the agenda for French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in his talks with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Ali Al Hakim, President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Mr Le Drian said he had discussed with Iraqi leaders "the way to implement an appropriate judicial mechanism" to try French and other fighters "in the best conditions".

The aim is for foreign militants to be tried in Iraqi courts while upholding certain principles of justice and respect for human rights, a French diplomatic source said.

One issue will be Iraq's use of the death penalty, which is outlawed throughout the EU.

Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden sent officials on a technical mission to Baghdad this week to assess the situation.

"There are talks between the Americans, the British, French and Iraqis about funding the construction of prisons," Hisham Al Hashemi, an Iraqi expert on ISIS, said.

Mr Le Drian urged the international coalition against ISIS to confront the "new risks created by the Turkish intervention in northeast Syria and the risk of an ISIS resurgence."

Hundreds of foreigners have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment in Iraq for belonging to ISIS.

Eleven French militants handed over to Iraqi authorities early this year by US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria were sentenced to death by a court in Baghdad.

In April, Iraq offered to try foreign ISIS suspects in exchange for operational costs.

One Iraqi official said Baghdad had requested $2 billion to put the suspects on trial.

Turkey on Monday accused Kurdish forces of deliberately releasing ISIS prisoners held at a prison in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad "in an attempt to fuel chaos in the area".

Kurdish officials claimed that Turkish bombardments had allowed nearly 800 relatives of foreign ISIS fighters to escape from a camp for the displaced.

According to the Kurdish administration, there are around 12,000 suspected ISIS fighters in the custody of Kurdish security forces across north-east Syria.

At least 2,500 of them are non-Iraqi foreigners of more than 50 different nationalities. Tunisia is thought to have the biggest contingent.

Officials in Paris say 60 to 70 French nationals are among those held.

The rest are around 4,000 Syrians and roughly the same number of Iraqis.

The fighters, who were detained mostly in the course of operations led by Kurdish forces and backed by the US-led coalition against ISIS, are detained in at least seven facilities.

Western governments such as France have been reluctant to take them back, for lack of a clear legal framework and fear of a public backlash.

ISIS said on Thursday that it had “freed” a women held by Syria’s Kurdish authorities in another of a series of escapes.

In a statement released on the Telegram messaging application, ISIS said it had stormed a security headquarters west of its former stronghold of Raqqa on Wednesday, "freeing Muslim women kidnapped" by Kurdish forces.

It did not give a number or say if the women were ISIS members or wives of militants.

Several other jail brakes have seen high profile foreign members escape.

At least three French women who had left a camp and have since joined up with ISIS, according to messages they sent to their lawyer.

Two ISIS militants from Belgium have also escaped custody, the head of Belgium's security assessment agency said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, a breakout attempt was foiled in the infamous Al Hol camp, which is so overcrowded that wardens are struggling to control riot.

Updated: October 17, 2019 06:43 PM

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