Turkey starts sending Islamic State fighters back to home countries

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image captionA member of the Syrian Democratic Forces guards IS suspects in north-east Syria

Turkey says it has sent back to the US an American belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group, as part of a drive to repatriate captured jihadist fighters.

The interior ministry said 20 IS fighters from Germany, France, Ireland and Denmark were also being expelled.

Turkey wants to repatriate some 2,500 militants - most to EU countries - state broadcaster TRT Haber said.

Turkey's president said 7,600 people from 102 countries held in the fight against IS had already been deported.

What happens to foreign IS fighters has been a key question since the defeat of the group in territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that some 2,500 foreign IS fighters are in prison in Turkey.

European countries have been reluctant to allow back nationals who went to fight for IS.

Where were the IS suspects captured?

It was not confirmed if those being repatriated were seized in Syria, or in Turkish territory.

Some IS members and their relatives were captured in north-eastern Syria in October, when Turkey launched a cross-border operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) there.

At the time, the SDF said it was holding more than 12,000 suspected IS members in seven prisons in the area, at least 4,000 of them foreign nationals.

Relatives of suspected IS militants were also being held at a number of camps for displaced people - the largest of which, al-Hol, housed almost 70,000 people.

image copyrightAFP/Getty images
image captionA security patrol escorts women, reportedly wives of Islamic State group fighters, at a camp in Syria

When Turkey's allies warned its invasion could compromise the security of those camps and aid the revival of IS, Ankara said it would take responsibility for IS prisoners found during the offensive.

How will the repatriations work?

The UN has said countries should take responsibility for their own citizens unless they are to be prosecuted locally, in accordance with international standards.

A French foreign ministry source told AFP news agency last week that suspected jihadists were often sent back to France from Turkey under a 2014 agreement.

"Jihadists and their families are regularly sent back to France and arrested as they leave the airplane. Most of the time it is done secretly. The news is not published, or released much later," the source said.

It is unclear whether Turkey will be able to repatriate IS suspects who have had their home citizenships revoked.

The UK has stripped more than 100 people of citizenship for allegedly joining jihadist groups abroad, AFP reports - for example in the case of teenage IS recruit Shamima Begum.

media captionOn Monday Shamima Begum told the BBC she never sought to be an IS "poster girl"

Denmark and Germany have taken the same step to block the return of suspected IS members.

Turkey's Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu warned last week that jihadists would be returned to their home countries regardless of revoked citizenships.

"There is no need to try to escape from it, we will send them back to you. Deal with them how you want," he said on Friday.

What is the risk from these fighters?

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says European intelligence agencies have warned that many of those who survived the final days of IS's last stand will remain highly dangerous radicals, brutalised by the atrocities they have witnessed, and in some cases, committed.

German magazine Der Spiegel said German officials believed a third of its nationals in the Kurdish-run camps - a total of 27 men and women - were "capable of carrying out violent acts including terrorist attacks".

Our correspondent says there is a fear that if and when these jihadists are eventually brought to trial in their home countries there could well be insufficient evidence - given the fluid circumstances in which they were captured - to convict them.

Governments may then find themselves accused of allowing back in dangerous men and women who pose a risk to national security.

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