By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – The repatriation and reintegration of thousands of families of Islamic State militants languishing in a Kurdish-run detention camp in northeast Syria should be speeded up, the top U.S. general in the Middle East said on Monday.
General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who leads U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said many of the residents of al Hol camp were families of IS members who had fled Islamic State’s final enclave of Baghouz in Syria in 2019. A majority of the residents are women and children.
“We have to look at this with empathy because there is no military solution to this. The only solution is to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate those members in the camp,” he added.
Almost half of the camp’s residents were adherents of IS ideology while the others were families who wanted to go back to their homes, Kurilla said.
Of the 54,000 residents, half were Iraqis, 18,000 were Syrians and the remaining 8,500 came from other countries, said Kurilla, who visited the camp in recent days.
The United Nations, rights groups and others have decried the resistance of many countries toward repatriating their citizens, whom they say are held in inhumane conditions without due process.
They say some states have balked at reclaiming their citizens, citing security concerns.
“What’s needed is for countries to step up and do their job. It’s needed to have them take on and bring their citizens back home,” Kurilla told a news conference in Amman, where CENTCOM is holding one of the largest military exercises in the region.
He said the current pace of repatriation, of 125 to 150 Iraqi families per month, is too slow and would take four years to complete.
“We have got to accelerate that,” he said.
Along with helping Iraq speed the transfer of IS detainees held in Syria to face trial in their country, CENTCOM was also working to bring back home the families of the Iraqi IS detainees, Kurilla said.
A three-week security campaign in camp waged by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to clamp down on record violence this year turned up hidden weapons and explosives, Kurilla said.
He said two SDF personnel were killed in the camp.
“This confirms what we have known all along – that there are IS in the camp,” he added.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Matthew Lewis)