The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria has handed over 12 French and two Dutch orphans born to fighter families to respective government delegations, an official has said.
The children, the oldest of whom is aged 10, had been living in camps where tens of thousands of people who fled recent fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) are still housed.
Kurdish officials handed over “12 orphaned French children from IS [ISIS] families to a delegation from the French ministry of foreign affairs”, top foreign affairs official Abdulkarim Omar said in a statement on Monday.
He said the transfer took place in the town of Ain Issa on Sunday and added that two orphaned Dutch children were also handed over to a government delegation from the Netherlands.
The Dutch foreign ministry had yet to confirm the development.
France has one of the largest contingents of suspected fighters who were captured or turned themselves in, together with their families, in the final stages of the US-backed Kurdish assault on the last fragment of ISIL’s “caliphate”.
The proto-state eventually died in the village of Baghouz, on the banks of the Euphrates, in March this year, after the months-long assault.
Larger than expected numbers of families emerged from the ruins of the last ISIL enclave and the fate of tens of thousands of them remains unclear.
The move to hand over French and Dutch orphans to government delegations comes amid increasing alarm over Iraq’s handling of cases involving French citizens suspected of being ISIL members.
Nearly a dozen French nationals are at risk of execution in Iraq after an Iraqi court sentenced them to death over ISIL affiliation.
In an open letter published earlier this month on French state radio Franceinfo’s website, a group of 45 lawyers urged President Emmanuel Macron to keep the men alive, irrespective of their alleged crimes, and said allowing them to be put to death would be a “great disgrace for our country”.
“We have taken a historic risk, which, if it is realised, will leave an indelible stain on the mandate of Emmanuel Macron,” the letter said.
Iraq is conducting trials of thousands of suspected ISIL fighters, many of whom were arrested as its strongholds fell, and has pledged to take a hard line against anyone convicted of involvement with the group.
Among those arrested are hundreds of foreign nationals from Europe.
However, European powers, including France and Britain, have repeatedly ruled out repatriating such individuals, arguing instead they should face trial for any alleged crimes before local courts.
But human rights groups have accused Iraqi authorities of inconsistencies in the judicial process and flawed trials, leading to unfair convictions – concerns that have been heightened by Iraq’s application of the death penalty.
France abolished the death penalty in 1981, four years after the country last applied capital punishment when convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi, 27, was executed by guillotine.