Ten Belgian children and six mothers have been recovered from a prison camp for captured militants in Syria and are being flown home, a source told AFP on Friday.
The operation is the biggest such repatriation since the battlefield defeat of the Daesh militant group in 2019, and follows a decision by Belgium to secure the return of under-12s.
The group is from the camp in Roj, in northeast Syria, where surviving suspected members of the group are being held under the supervision of Kurdish militia.
Hundreds of volunteer fighters from Europe travelled to Syria and Iraq during the Daesh group’s campaign. Many died but others, including women and children, are trapped in camps.
Their presence has proven an embarrassment for many European governments, reluctant to allow citizens with suspected extremist ties to return to their homelands.
But Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo announced in March that his country would do what it could to secure the return of the youngest, describing this as a matter of national security.
Belgium’s extremism monitoring agency OCAM judges that the mothers and children who have spent time in the camps need to be kept under watch and that this is easier if they are on Belgian soil.
Once they are returned, the mothers are expected to be arrested and charged by anti-terrorism authorities, while the children will be taken into the care of social services.
Neither de Croo’s office nor the anti-terror prosecutor’s office were ready to comment but a news conference may be held on Saturday once the arrivals are safely in custody.
Heidi De Pauw, of the Child Focus NGO, praised the “courage” of the Belgian government and said she was “happy” that the children had been able to “leave the dangers of these war zones”.
“We hope that they will be able to live out their childhood anonymously and that their rights as children, such as access to education and health care, will be respected,” she told AFP.
De Pauw had accompanied a Belgian mission in June 2019 that brought back six children and adolescents, all orphans or victims of parental abduction.
This latest mission took place in several stages and began at the beginning of June, when a consular mission went to Roj to collect blood samples in order to verify the parentage of the children and their Belgian nationality.
For security reasons, it was not possible to visit the larger Al-Hol camp where many foreign fighters are still present.
Belgium, along with France, is among the European countries that saw the largest number of foreign fighters leave after the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011.
From 2012 onwards, more than 400 Belgians left to fight in the ranks of jihadist organisations.
These returns could only be organised in small numbers over the last two years since the defeat of the Islamic State organisation in Baghouz, in south-eastern Syria.
Earlier this year, Belgian researchers estimated that about 40 Belgian minors were still in Syria.