Belgium has repatriated ten children and six mothers who were being held at a camp in north-eastern Syria for family members of suspected ISIS fighters.
The group arrived in Belgium late on Friday, with the women taken into custody and children handed over to social services.
“The priority has always been to get the children to safety. All the operations were carried out according to the pre-established plan,” Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said.
The repatriation was the biggest of its kind since ISIS was defeated on the battlefield in Syria in 2019. Two years previously, the group lost their last major urban stronghold, Mosul in Iraq, but a pocket of the extremist group held out in eastern Syria.
They were being held at the Al Roj camp, which is controlled by Kurdish authorities who allied with countries including the US to capture the last territories that ISIS controlled in Syria.
The effort to recover the 16 people took place in several stages and began in June, when a consular mission went to Al Roj to collect blood samples to verify the parentage of the children and their Belgian nationality.
It also came after Eric de Muynck, a senior official at Belgium’s foreign ministry, visited north-eastern Syria on Thursday to meet the local Kurdish authorities there.
Heidi de Pauw, the chief executive of Belgian NGO Child Focus, said she was happy the children were able to leave Syria for a safer place.
“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.”
More than 400 Belgian nationals travelled to Syria to live in ISIS territory, making up one of the largest European contingents to join the terrorist group.
Many European governments have been reluctant to take back their citizens from the camps in Syria because of security fears.
But in March, Mr de Croo said his government would do all it could to bring home those under-12 amid concerns for their well-being.
The squalid camps in north-eastern Syria are home to thousands of people with suspected links to ISIS.
Human Rights Watch has described the conditions as “inhuman” and “degrading,” and urged governments to repatriate their citizens.