Aid officials 'gravely concerned' over fate of relocated Islamic State families in Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Aid officials in Iraq said they were “gravely concerned” about the fate of about 1,400 foreign wives and children of suspected Islamic State militants relocated by Iraqi authorities, who did not warn aid organizations.

Displaced Iraqis who had fled their homes are seen in Hammam Al-Alil camp in south of Mosul, Iraq September 9,2017. Picture taken September 9,2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

The families had been held by Iraqi authorities since Aug. 30 in the Hammam al-Alil transit camp, south of Mosul.

“We are gravely concerned about these families,” said Melany Markham, spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Iraq. The NRC is one of several aid groups that have provided humanitarian services to the families.

“We weren’t informed where the families would be taken to, and we don’t know if they will have access to assistance and protection,” Markham said. “They are a very vulnerable population.”

None of the aid groups supporting the families, including the United Nations, were given advanced warning by Iraqi officials about the move, according to Markham.

The families were moved to Tal Keif, a town north of Mosul, an Iraqi police intelligence source confirmed. They are being housed in buildings rather than camp sites, under the supervision of Iraqi police officers.

During a visit to the Hammam al-Alil camp earlier this week, several women told Reuters that they were terrified of leaving the camp and being taken under the exclusive control of Iraqi forces.

A young Chechen mother told Reuters she feared the Iraqi special forces would rape or “forcibly disappear” her for her ties Islamic State if she were to be moved from the camp with her son.

Photographs provided by the NRC and taken after the relocation showed the large tents at the camp were completely empty. Personal belongings, including children’s toys and shoes, were left strewn across several tents.

On Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw a group of coaches arrive at the camp, in what aid workers said was an initial attempt to remove the women. The buses ultimately left empty.

More than 300 of the families came from Turkey, though many others came from former Soviet states, such as Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Russia, according to the Iraqi army.

Most of the families had fled to Tal Afar after Iraqi troops pushed Islamic State out of Mosul. Iraqi forces retook Tal Afar, a city of predominantly ethnic Turkmen that produced some of Islamic State’s senior commanders, last month.

It is the largest group of foreigners linked to Islamic State to be held by Iraqi forces since they began driving the militants from Mosul and other areas in northern Iraq last year, an aid official said. Thousands of foreigners have been fighting for Islamic State, or Daesh, in Iraq and Syria.

Reporting by Raya Jalabi, editing by Louise Heavens