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Red Cross urges states to take back fighters, families in northeast Syria

GENEVA (Reuters) - Countries must reclaim their citizens held in camps in northeast Syria, a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Reuters on Wednesday, as Turkish forces launched an incursion.

FILE PHOTO: Children holding stacks of bread walk in al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo

An estimated 100,000 people - defeated fighters of Islamic State and their families - are held in and around camps in the region, including 68,000 in al-Hol camp, Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Near and Middle East, said.

They are captured Islamic State fighters - Syrian, Iraqi, and foreigners from dozens of other countries - as well as their wives and children, under the custody of Syrian Kurdish forces since U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took the jihadist group’s last enclave. Two-thirds are children.

“Their parents were either killed or wounded and they are today in a place which is really not made for kids. So you can imagine the trauma those kids have suffered, are still suffering,” Carboni said a day ahead of World Mental Health Day.

Few countries have seemed willing to take back their citizens, who may be hard to prosecute, and the issue has led to fierce debate in their home countries where there is little public sympathy for the families of jihadists.

“It is obviously a big concern, this probable increased violence in northeast Syria because this camp is in a very fragile environment, the condition of the people in the camp is also fragile,” Carboni said, referring to al-Hol.

The Kurdish-led SDF said Turkish warplanes struck Syria’s northeast, sparking “huge panic among people” on Wednesday. World powers fear an incursion could open a new chapter in Syria’s war and worsen regional turmoil.

The “status quo” was not an option for the 100,000, Carboni said.

“So our message to all states that have citizens in those camps is take responsibility, to be courageous. Because we know it’s a major political and security challenge,” he said, describing the situation as “complex”.

“But I still believe that if you look at all the population in this camp, the situation of the Westerners is probably the easiest one to solve,” Carboni said.

The ICRC has argued that states must ‘take responsibility’ by taking back citizens and their children humanely and within their legal framework, on a case-by-case basis.

The ICRC delivers life-saving assistance to al-Hol residents and helps run a 24-hour field hospital there, he said.

Aid agencies must be able to continue to deliver supplies to civilians, including the cities of Hassakeh, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, he said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean