Russia repatriates 33 children of ISIS supporters from Iraq

The Kremlin’s children’s rights ombudswoman says the last Russian children in Iraq will return home in August

Women and children wait to be screened after fleeing from the last pocket of ISIS territory outside Baghouz, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid
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More than 30 Russian children whose parents are accused by Iraqi authorities of joining ISIS have been repatriated, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry announced on Monday.

Dr Ahmad Al Sahaf, the ministry spokesperson, said in a statement that 33 children had been returned to Russia earlier this month after the two countries took “the necessary legal measures to ensure their sponsorship and providing legal guarantees to protect their rights.”

A special flight operated by the Emergencies Ministry had flown the children from Baghdad to Zhukovsky International Airport near Moscow on July 10, Russia’s state-run news agency TASS reported.

According to 2017 report by the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, Russia was the largest contributor of foreign fighters to ISIS, with 3,417 of its citizens travelling to Iraq or Syria to join the ranks of the terrorist group.

ISIS once controlled 88,000 square kilometres across Iraq and Syria but was territorially defeated in March. Since then, Western leaders have been at odds over what to do with surviving citizens who travelled to join the self-proclaimed caliphate.

Russian human rights activists praised the Kremlin for taking what advocates have described as a moral stance on the fate of the women and children.

President Vladimir Putin said: “Children, when taken to armed conflict zones, did not make a decision to go there and we have no right to abandon them there”.

A repatriation programme initiated by the leader of the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and backed by the Russian president has returned dozens of women and about 200 children since late 2017.

The programme, however, was halted for almost all of 2018 amid disagreements among security officials in Moscow over the threat posed by the returnees, analysts said. Russia has been the target of multiple attacks claimed by ISIS and just last week the country’s security agency, the FSB, arrested seven men believed to be supporters of the group for attempting to derail a high-speed train between St Petersburg and Moscow.

When the repatriation programme was restarted in December last year, it only included children and not women, many of whom were believed to be active ISIS supporters.

Disagreements over the programme, however, will now be laid to rest since Russia’s ombudswoman for children, Anna Kuznetsova, said last week that the last group of minors will be returned to Russia from Iraq in August. Ms Kuznetsova said the final group consisted of about 30 children.

In its statement, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it had coordinated the return of about 473 children to a long list of countries including former Soviet republics, Germany, France, Finland and Turkey. Mr Al Sahaf called upon all states to “intensify efforts to receive their nationals” from detention in Iraq.

The representative’s plea was echoed on Monday by Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Gennady Kuzmin during a UN Security Council session on Iraq. He said Russia was “alarmed” by the unresolved problem of the repatriation of foreign ISIS members back to their home countries.

“It would be erroneous to have all problems related to holding trials and proceedings hoisted only onto Iraq or other countries of the region,” Mr Kuzmin said in a statement. “In this regard, we have concerns about the unsolved problem of repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin.”