Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Kosovo repatriates over 100 fighters and families from Syria

Bosnia also repatriated a suspected ISIS fighter on Saturday

A young Kosovar child looks at Kosovar police officers as she picks up flowers in the compound of the foreign detention centre in the village of Vranidoll, Kosovo, on April 20, 2019. AFP
A young Kosovar child looks at Kosovar police officers as she picks up flowers in the compound of the foreign detention centre in the village of Vranidoll, Kosovo, on April 20, 2019. AFP

Kosovo repatriated 110 of its citizens from Syria on Saturday including militants who had gone to fight in the country's civil war and 74 children, the government said.

After the collapse of ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq, countries around the world are wrestling with how to handle militants and their families seeking to return. As the repatriation was taking place, neighbouring Bosnia also repatriated a man suspected of fighting in Syria with ISIS.

The population of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is nominally 90 per cent Muslim, but largely secular in outlook.

More than 300 Kosovo citizens have travelled to Syria since 2012 and 70 men who fought alongside militant groups were killed.

"Today, in the early hours of the morning, an important and sensitive operation was organised in which the government of Kosovo with the help of the United States of America has returned 110 of its citizens from Syria,” Kosovan Justice Minister Abelard Tahiri said at a press conference.

Mr Tahiri did not specify what role the United States had played but a plane with a US flag on its tail was seen in the cargo area of Pristina airport as the operation was ongoing.

Authorities said among those who were returned were four fighters, 32 women and 74 children, including nine without a parent.

The four fighters were immediately arrested and the state prosecutor said indictments against them will soon follow.

After several hours at the airport, two busloads of women and children were transported under police escort to an army barracks just outside Pristina.

Police said 30 Kosovan fighters, 49 women and 8 children still remain in the conflict zones.

"We will not stop before bringing every citizen of the Republic of Kosovo back to their country and anyone that has committed any crime or was part of these terrorist organizations will face the justice," Mr Tahiri said.

“As Kosovo, we cannot allow that our citizens be a threat to the West and to our allies.”

International and local security agencies have previously warned of the risk posed by returning fighters. In 2015, Kosovo adopted a law making fighting in foreign conflicts punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

The United States commended Kosovo for the return of its citizens and called other countries to do the same.

“With this repatriation, Kosovo has set an important example for all members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the international community to follow. We applaud their compassion in accepting the return of this large number of civilians,” the US Embassy in Pristina said in a statement.

There have been no Islamist attacks on Kosovan soil, although more than 100 men have been jailed or indicted on charges of fighting in Syria and Iraq. Some of them were found guilty of planning attacks in Kosovo.

Prosecutors said they were investigating 156 other suspects.

The government has said a form of radical Islam had been imported to Kosovo by non-governmental organizations from the Middle East after the end of its 1998-99 war of secession from Serbia.

Meanwhile, a Bosnian national suspected of fighting for ISIS was brought back to the country and put in detention, Bosnia's prosecutor's office said on Saturday.

"I.C, 24, is suspected for criminal acts of organising a terrorist group, illegal formation and of joining foreign paramilitary or para-police formations and terrorism," the prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Bosnia's state court has tried and convicted 46 people who have returned from Syria or Iraq in the past few years.

Local media identified the man as Ibro Cufurovic from the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa who, along with Armin Curt, 22, from Sarajevo, had been detained by the Kurdish militia more than a year ago. The prosecution also outlined the assistance of the US in bringing the man back. America backs the Kurdish militia operating in the northern Syria.

According to Bosnian intelligence, 241 adults and 80 children left Bosnia or the Bosnian diaspora in 2012-2016 for Syria and Iraq, where 150 more children were born. About 100 adults, including 49 women, remained there while at least 88 have been killed or died.

Several women with children, including the Cufurovic's wife, have pleaded with the Bosnian authorities to be allowed to return home but there is still no clear policy in place on how to deal with them because their children do not hold Bosnian citizenship.

Updated: April 20, 2019 05:38 PM

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