U.N. says around 350,0000 people have fled Syria’s Idlib since Dec. 1

AMMAN (Reuters) – Around 350,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have been displaced by a renewed Russian-backed offensive in the opposition-held Idlib province since early December, and have sought shelter in border areas near Turkey, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result of the “escalating” hostilities.

Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages in recent weeks in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias that aimed at clearing the opposition.

“This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Idlib,” David Swanson, Amman-based U.N. regional spokesman for Syria, told Reuters.

Russian and Syrian jets resumed bombing of civilian areas in the opposition enclave two days after a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia formally took effect on Sunday.

U.N. officials said earlier this month the humanitarian crisis had worsened with thousands of civilians on the run in Idlib province on top of close to 400,000 people who fled earlier bouts of fighting to the safety of camps near the Turkish border.

The latest offensive has brought the Russian-steered military campaign closer to heavily populated parts of Idlib province, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The number of Syrians fleeing attacks in the country’s northwestern Idlib province and heading toward Turkey has reached 120,000, a Turkish aid group said on Monday, adding it was setting up a camp for some of those uprooted.

Syrian and Russian forces have recently intensified their bombardment of targets in Idlib, which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture, prompting a wave of refugees toward Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Turkey cannot handle a fresh wave of migrants, warning that European countries will feel the impact of such an influx if violence in Syria’s northwest is not stopped.

“In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000,” said Selim Tosun, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media advisor in Syria.

Erdogan said on Sunday 80,000 people were currently on the move. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 40,000 civilians had been displaced since Thursday, the start of the latest military operation.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maraat al-Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, the IHH’s Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between the city of Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It was also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village some 13 km (8 miles) from the Turkish border.

Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.7 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world, after 8-1/2 years of civil war in Syria. Ankara fears another wave from the Idlib region, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last significant rebel-held swathe of territory.

A Turkish delegation was traveling to Moscow on Monday for talks which were expected to focus in part on Syria and which Erdogan had said would determine Turkey’s course of action in the region.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad in the war, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children

Erdogan says world cares more about Syria’s oil than its children
By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged world powers on Tuesday to help it resettle 1 million Syrian refugees very soon, accusing governments of moving more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children.

Erdogan, whose country hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population worldwide, said more than 600,000 should voluntarily join around 371,000 already in a “peace zone” in northern Syria from which Turkey drove Kurdish militia.

“I think the resettlement can easily reach 1 million in a very short period of time,” Erdogan told the Global Forum on Refugees in Geneva.

The plan met with scepticism from Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who said that while Turkey was far ahead in terms of hosting refugees, resettling Arab refugees in areas previously populated by Kurds was wrong.

“I hope this will not happen, really. It shouldn’t happen,” Egeland told Reuters.

Turkey has said it expected the Syrian Kurdish refugees it hosts, who number around 300,000, to be the first to return to the area between the border towns of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad.

Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said returns must be voluntary, refugees should be given support and property and other legal issues must be addressed.

“We are also urging the Syrian authorities to allow us a presence in the areas where people return because this could be a confidence-building measure,” Grandi told a news conference.

HIGH COST

Erdogan said Turkey had spent more than $40 billion hosting the refugees and criticized the European Union, which had pledged nearly 6 billion euros ($6.61 billion), for failing to deliver around half of that sum.

The European Commission has said it is committed to delivering the aid.

Two months ago, Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies launched a third cross-border offensive into northern Syria against the YPG, which had spearheaded the fight against Islamic State.

After seizing a 120-km (75 mile) strip of land from Ras al Ain to Tel Abyad in northeastern Syria, Ankara signed deals with Washington and Moscow to halt its assault.

Erdogan, taking a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, which moved quickly to guard Syrian oil fields after the retreat of Islamic State, said: “Unfortunately the efforts that were spared to protect the oil fields were not mobilized for the safety and security of the children in Syria.”

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil and has said the U.S.-led NATO alliance should be supporting its fellow member Turkey instead.

Turkey had said it could settle 2 million Syrian refugees in a planned “safe zone” stretching 444 km (275 miles) in northern Syria and has repeatedly urged NATO allies to help fund the plans. Last week, Erdogan said Turkey may settle 1 million refugees between Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad alone.

On Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey could build housing and schools in the zone as it has in other parts of northern Syria after driving out the YPG.

Around 150 Kurds demonstrated outside the U.N. European headquarters during his speech. Ramazan Baytar, head of the Kurdish Democratic Society Center in Switzerland, said Erdogan was using the refugee issue to enact demographic change. Turkey has blamed changing regional demographics on the YPG.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey and by Cecile Mantovani in Geneva; writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

‘Nasty’, ‘two-faced’, ‘brain dead’: NATO pulls off summit despite insults

By Robin Emmott and Andreas Rinke

WATFORD, England (Reuters) – NATO leaders set aside public insults ranging from “delinquent” to “brain dead” on Wednesday, declaring at a 70th anniversary summit they would stand together against a common threat from Russia and prepare for China’s rise.

Officials insisted the summit was a success: notably, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan backed off from an apparent threat to block plans to defend northern and eastern Europe unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

But the meeting began and ended in acrimony startling even for the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, who arrived declaring the French president “nasty” and left calling Canada’s prime minister “two-faced” for mocking him on a hot mic.

“We have been able to overcome our disagreements and continue to deliver on our core tasks to protect and defend each other,” NATO’s ever-optimistic Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

In a joint declaration, the leaders said: “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

The half-day summit at a golf resort on the outskirts of London was always going to be tricky, with officials hoping to avoid acrimony that burst forth at their meeting last year when Trump complained about allies failing to bear the burden of collective security.

But this year’s meeting was made even more difficult by Erdogan, who launched an incursion into Syria and bought Russian missiles against the objections of his allies, and by French President Emmanuel Macron, who had described the alliance’s strategy as brain dead in an interview last month.

In public it seemed to go worse than expected, beginning on Tuesday when Trump called Macron’s remarks “very, very nasty” and described allies who spend too little on defense as “delinquents” — a term officials said Trump used again on Wednesday behind closed doors during the summit itself.

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday evening, Canada’s Justin Trudeau was caught on camera with Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, laughing at Trump’s long press appearances. “You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” said Trudeau.

By the time the summit wound up on Wednesday, Trump had decided not to hold a final press conference, saying he had already said enough. “He’s two-faced,” Trump said of Trudeau.

HUAWEI SECURITY RISK

Nevertheless, officials said important decisions were reached, including an agreement to ensure the security of communications, including new 5G mobile phone networks. The United States wants allies to ban equipment from the world’s biggest telecoms gear maker, Chinese firm Huawei.

“I do think it’s a security risk, it’s a security danger,” Trump said in response to a question on Huawei, although the leaders’ declaration did not refer to the company by name.

“I spoke to Italy and they look like they are not going to go forward with that. I spoke to other countries, they are not going to go forward,” he said of contracts with Huawei.

Ahead of the summit, Johnson — the British host who faces an election next week and chose to avoid making any public appearances with Trump — appealed for unity.

“Clearly it is very important that the alliance stays together,” he said. “But there is far, far more that unites us than divides us.”

Macron held his ground over his earlier criticism of NATO’s strategy, saying as he arrived that it was important for leaders to discuss issues in an open and forthright manner if they were to find solutions.

“I think it’s our responsibility to raise differences that could be damaging and have a real strategic debate,” he said. “It has started, so I am satisfied.”

One of Macron’s chief complaints is that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria and buying Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

In his comments to the press, Stoltenberg said that while Russia was a threat, NATO also wanted to ensure a constructive dialogue with it. He added, in a reference to Turkey, that the S-400 system was in no way compatible with NATO’s defense.

At the summit, Europe, Turkey and Canada pledged to spend an extra $400 billion on defense by 2024, responding to Trump’s accusations that they spend too little. Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s blandishments, has promised to spend 2% of national output by 2031.

France and Germany also won backing for a strategic review of NATO’s mission, with the alliance set to establish a “wise persons” group to study how the organization needs to reposition for the future. That could involve shifting its posture away from the East and toward threats in the Middle East and Africa.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, John Chalmers and Johnny Cotton in Watford, and Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by John Chalmers and Peter Graff)

‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

Turkey to oppose NATO plan if it fails to recognize terrorism threats: Erdogan

Turkey to oppose NATO plan if it fails to recognize terrorism threats: Erdogan
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey will oppose NATO’s plan for the defense of Baltic countries if the alliance does not recognize groups that Turkey deems terrorists, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, ahead of a NATO alliance summit in London.

Relations between Turkey and its NATO allies have been strained over a host of issues, ranging from Ankara’s decision to procure Russian air defense systems to Syria policy. Several NATO members condemned Turkey’s decision to launch an offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara has refused to back a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland until it receives more support for its battle with the YPG, which it views as a terrorist organization.

Ahead of his departure from Ankara for the NATO summit, Erdogan said he had spoken to Polish President Andrzej Duda on the phone on Monday and had agreed to meet with him and leaders of Baltic countries in London to discuss the issue.

“With pleasure, we can come together and discuss these issues there as well,” he said. “But if our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there.”

A Turkish security source said on Monday that Turkey is not “blackmailing” NATO with its rejection of the plans and that it has full veto rights within the alliance.

Turkey, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are expected to hold a separate meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan said they would mainly discuss Turkish plans to establish a safe zone in northeast Syria, which has until now been met with criticism from Ankara’s European allies.

Separately, Turkey has been at odds with Greece and Cyprus over ownership of offshore natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan said he will also meet with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. senators want Turkey sanctioned over Russia missile system: letter

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called on the Trump administration on Monday to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, saying the failure to do so sends a “terrible signal” to other countries.

“The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law,” Van Hollen and Graham said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seen by Reuters. “Failure to do so is sending a terrible signal to other countries that they can flout U.S. laws without consequence,” they said.

Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over NATO ally Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp is developing.

Infuriating many members of Congress, Turkey shrugged off the threat of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 program.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has held off on imposing sanctions despite Trump signing a sweeping sanctions law, known as CAATSA, in 2017 mandating them for countries that do business with Russia’s military.

U.S. lawmakers’ anger toward Turkey deepened after Ankara crossed into Syria for an offensive against Kurdish militias that had helped U.S. forces combat Islamic State militants.

Normally an ardent defender of fellow-Republican Trump, Graham and some others in his party have been harshly critical of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, paving the way for the Turkish move against Kurdish fighters.

Van Hollen and Graham have been among the most vocal senators calling for Washington to push back against Turkey.

Trump hosted his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House for a meeting last month that Trump described as “wonderful.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Pompeo said on Nov. 26 that Turkey carrying out tests on the Russian defense system was “concerning,” and that talks to resolve the issue were still under way.

The same day, the head of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was cited as saying that Moscow hoped to seal a deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of 2020.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

In gesture to Trump, US allies close to deal to pay more for NATO running costs

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies are closing in on a deal to contribute more to allied running costs to reduce the United States’ share of funding, three diplomats familiar with the matter said.

Agreement would meet a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump, though France has made clear it will have no part in the deal, which the alliance hopes to reach before its 70th anniversary summit in London next week.

Trump has accused European allies, especially Europe’s biggest economy Germany, of taking U.S. protection for granted and says they need to spend much more on their own defense.

The reform of financing for the U.S.-led military alliance would seal months of negotiations after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put forward a proposal.

The agreement would mean European allies, Turkey and Canada contribute more towards the annual $2.5-billion budget to run the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that allies spend on their armed forces each year, it is a small sum. But it is one that allies hope would silence Trump’s statement in July 2018 that the United States “pays tens of billions of dollars too much to subsidize Europe”.

“It is a political gesture,” one senior NATO diplomat of the possible deal. “There is no alliance without the Americans.”

France opposed the proposal long before President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance on Nov. 7 as “experiencing brain death”, French diplomats have said.

With 30,000 troops deployed and ships across the world, Paris says it already does more than its fair share in defense, maintaining a high level of combat readiness of French forces and pouring billions of euros into defense research.

Paris will not block the proposal, but will abstain, the three NATO diplomats said.

France’s defense spending is higher than Germany’s as a percentage of economic output, data shows. Paris says it will also meet a NATO target to spend 2% of national output on defense by 2025 at the latest, while Germany will reach that level only in 2031, according to French and German officials.

NUMBERS GAME

Canada has said its support for the funding agreement should not set a precedent for other international organizations, the diplomats said. Italy has yet to decide its position, they said.

All 29 NATO member states contribute to the budget on an agreed formula based on gross national income, but this formula would change after the proposed reform.

“It will be a more cumbersome mechanism,” a second NATO diplomat said.

Under the proposal being negotiated for the 2021 budget, the U.S. contribution to the alliance’s annual budget would fall to around 16% from 22%. Germany’s would rise to the same level as the United States and others’ contributions would also rise.

Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of national output on defense – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees
By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it had deported two captives from Islamic State, a German and an American, starting a program to repatriate detainees that has caused friction with its NATO allies since it launched an offensive in northern Syria.

Ankara says it has captured 287 militants in northeast Syria and already holds hundreds more Islamic State suspects. It has accused European countries of being too slow to take back citizens who traveled to fight in the Middle East.

Allies have been worried that Islamic State militants could escape as a result of Turkey’s assault against Syrian Kurdish militia who have been holding thousands of the group’s fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said last week Turkey would begin to send foreign Islamic State militants back to their home countries starting on Monday, even if the nations the fighters came from had revoked their citizenship.

Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German were deported on Monday. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said detainees would be sent to their native countries.

The 23 others to be deported in coming days were all European, including a Dane expected to be sent abroad later on Monday, as well as two Irish nationals, nine other Germans and 11 French citizens.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed, with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified,” Catakli said, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency.

Germany’s foreign ministry said Ankara had informed Berlin of 10 people – three men, five women and two children. A spokesman said he did not know whether any were Islamic State fighters, but did not contest their citizenship. The ministry said seven were expected on Thursday and two on Friday.

“Citizens can rest assured that each individual case will be carefully examined by the German authorities,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. “We will do everything possible to prevent returnees with links to IS becoming a threat in Germany.”

The Danish Public Prosecutor said on Monday that Denmark and Turkey were in contact over a Danish citizen convicted of terrorism charges in Turkey.

While German and Danish authorities have confirmed they were aware of the Turkish plans, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said she was not aware of them.

A Dutch court in The Hague ruled on Monday that the Netherlands must help repatriate children of women who joined IS, but the mothers do not need to be accepted back.

SYRIA OFFENSIVE

Turkey launched its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia last month, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move U.S. troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a U.S. ally against Islamic State, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across northeast Syria and has also overseen camps where relatives of fighters have sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted concern over the fate of the prisoners, with Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against Islamic State and aid its resurgence.

Turkey has rejected those concerns and vowed to combat Islamic State with its allies. It has also accused the YPG of vacating some Islamic State jails.

European states are trying to speed up a plan to move thousands of jihadists out of Syrian prisons and into Iraq. Denmark, Germany and Britain have revoked the citizenship of some fighters and family members.

Last week Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying there were 1,201 Islamic State prisoners in Turkish jails, while Turkey had captured 287 militants in Syria.

On Monday, state broadcaster TRT Haber said Turkey aimed to repatriate around 2,500 militants, mostly to EU countries. It said there were 813 militants at 12 deportation centers.

Erdogan said Turkey had captured 13 people from the inner circle of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a U.S. raid last month.

(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Thomas Escritt in Berlin, Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Sophie Louet in Paris, Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Peter Graff)