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French jihadists held in Syria may be allowed to return home, says Paris

Screengrab, FRANCE 24

French jihadists detained in Syria by Kurdish-led forces could be allowed to return home, the French foreign ministry announced Tuesday in a possible change of policy sparked by the planned US troop withdrawal.

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As Kurdish-led forces are closing in on the last pockets of terrain held by the Islamic State (IS) group, France is worried that French prisoners held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be released or escape after US President Donald Trump announced plans last month to pull US forces out of 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.

Click here to watch FRANCE 24’s exclusive report on foreign jihadi brides held in Syria

The announcement came as a FRANCE 24 team in Syria interviewed a French “jihadi bride” – who identified herself only as “Mathilde” – and stated that she wanted to “return to France”.

The choice, according to Mathilde, was either returning to France to face prison or remaining in the last IS group-held territory and getting killed. “I chose to go to prison, others chose to die,” she said.

The French foreign ministry statement released Tuesday made it clear that returning jihadists – many of whom enlisted with the IS group – would face the full weight of the law. "These people voluntarily joined a terrorist organisation which is fighting in the Levant, carried out attacks in France and continues to threaten us," said the statement.

Trump announcement forces France to act

Speaking to French TV station BFM earlier Tuesday, French 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.

Before Trump made his shock Syria withdrawal announcement, France was in no hurry to repatriate French jihadists from Syria. Returning jihadists are considered a security risk in France and politicians fear a backlash over their return.

But Kurdish authorities in Syria are overwhelmed with the number of foreign nationals in their custody. “Countries must repatriate their citizens and judge them. We don't have the means to judge these people. There is an alternative, via the United Nations – they could create a special tribunal here to judge them. Then these people would be judged here, officially,” Mustapha Bali, head of the SDF’s media unit, told FRANCE 24.

‘Thousands’ of IS group fighters, says US

There are no official estimates of how many French nationals could be repatriated.

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

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

The US estimates the IS group – also known as ISIS – still has a force of thousands of fighters who pose a potent threat in the Middle East as its leaders continue to encourage attacks on the West.

"ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses," Director of US National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a new report to Congress.

Up to 1,700 French nationals are thought to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the IS group between 2014-2018, according to French government figures.

Fears of escape or bargaining chips for Assad

Castaner however denied that the government was softening its position.

"It's not a question of being taken back. If they come to France they will be incarcerated," he said.

Trump’s US pullout announcement came as a blow to the SDF, who have spearheaded the fight against the IS group on the ground.

The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, which is threatening to attack the group.

France fears that if the Kurdish forces are drawn into battle with Turkey in northeast Syria the foreign jihadists being held there could escape or be freed.

That would pose a significant threat for France, where jihadists have been involved in a number of deadly attacks since 2015, including the Paris attacks of November 2015 in which 130 people were killed.

If Turkey holds off on its threat to attack Kurdish forces, Paris fears that the Kurds could seek protection from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who could then use French prisoners as bargaining chips with Paris, French diplomats have said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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