More than 150 ISIS militants handed over to Iraq from Syria

A Syrian Democratic Force fighter stands atop a building near the last land still held by ISIS in Baghouz, Syria. (AP)

US-backed Syrian forces fighting the ISIS group in Syria handed over more than 150 Iraqi members of the group to Iraq, the first batch of several to come, an Iraqi security official said on Thursday.

The official said the ISIS militants were handed over to the Iraqi side late on Wednesday, and that they were now in a “safe place” and being investigated.

The transfer marks the biggest repatriation from Syria of captured militants so far - an issue that poses a major conundrum for Europeans and other countries whose nationals have been imprisoned as foreign fighters in Syria.

The SDF is holding more than 1,000 foreign fighters in prisons it runs in the country’s north, many of them Iraqis and Europeans.

The Kurdish-led Syrian force - and more recently President Donald Trump - have called on these countries to take back their nationals. SDF says it cannot afford to keep the captured foreigners in Syria, but few of their countries want them back.

Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi said Iraq will take back all Iraqi ISIS militants in Syria, as well as thousands of their family members.

The Iraqi security official, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the SDF are holding more than 20,000 Iraqis suspected of ISIS membership in prisons in northern Syria, adding that they will be transferred back home in batches. 

Final standoff 

The handover came as the US-backed Syrian force is involved in a standoff over the final sliver of land held by the ISIS group in southeastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border.

A few hundred people - many of them women and terrified-looking children - were evacuated Wednesday from the group’s tiny tent camp on the banks of the Euphrates River, signaling an imminent end to the territorial rule of the militants’ self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across a third of both Syria and Iraq.

Some 300 ISIS militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent camp in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. It is not clear how many civilians remain holed up inside, along with the militants.

More trucks were sent in Thursday to the tip of a corridor leading to the camp to evacuate more people, but Associated Press journalists on the ground outside Baghouz said no civilians emerged.

“We thought more civilians will come out today and we sent 50 trucks over,” said an SDF commander who goes by his nom de guerre, Aram. “We don’t know why they are not coming out.”

It was not immediately clear whether the 150 Iraqis repatriated late Wednesday were among those recently evacuated from Baghouz or militants who had been captured earlier.

The Baghouz enclave’s recapture by US-backed Syrian fighters would spell the territorial defeat of ISIS and allow Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Few believe, however, that ending the group’s territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.

Last Update: 06:58 KSA 09:58 - GMT 06:58