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France says around 450 IS-linked nationals detained in Syria

Thousands of suspected IS militants are facing trials in Iraq [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 May, 2019

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The French foreign minister said Paris believes around 450 French nationals linked to the Islamic State are being held by Kurds or detained in refugee camps in northeastern Syria.

Around 450 French nationals linked to the Islamic State are being held by Kurds or detained in refugee camps in northeastern Syria, the French foreign minister said on Tuesday.

"In the northeastern zone of Syria, we think that there are between 400 and 450 French people, some in camps, others held as prisoners, including children," Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament's foreign affairs committee.

He said only the children could be repatriated if they were orphans or if their mothers gave permission.

France has long insisted that its adult citizens captured in Iraq or Syria must face trial locally, refusing to repatriate them despite the risk they could receive death sentences.

"Our position is still the same and we will not shift: fighters must be judged where they have committed crimes," Le Drain said.

The remarks came after Baghdad court sentenced two more Frenchmen to death on Tuesday for joining the Islamic State jihadist group, raising the number of French IS members on death row in Iraq to six.

Since March Paris has repatriated just five orphans and a three-year-old girl whose mother was sentenced to life in prison in Iraq.

Le Drian said that more than 100 French fighters were still present in Idlib, the last jihadist stronghold in Syria's northwest which is being relentlessly bombed by President Bashar al-Assad's troops.

He said the area was a "real time bomb" with about "30,000" rebel and jihadist fighters holed up there and evoked the threat of an influx of refugees from this region to Europe.

In recent months Iraq has taken custody of thousands of suspected jihadis, among them countless foreigners. They now face trials heavily criticised by rights groups, which say they often rely on evidence obtained through torture.

On Monday, the French government said it would take "the necessary steps" to try to prevent Iraq from carrying out the death penalty against the three French citizens convicted of fighting alongside the Islamic State group.

"France is opposed in principle to the death penalty at all times and in all places," the foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday, just a day after the three IS members were sentenced.

It said the detained men were receiving consular assistance to ensure they had legal representation ahead of an expected appeal of the ruling, which they can lodge within 30 days.

Iraqi courts have condemned many to life in prison and others to death, though no foreign IS members have yet been executed.

Iraq's government has declined to provide figures on detention centres or prisoners, including how many are facing terrorism-related charges, although some studies estimate 20,000 are being held for purported IS links.

Iraq
 declared victory over IS in late 2017 and began trying foreigners accused of joining the militant group the following year. 

Government sources have told AFP that Baghdad would be willing to try all foreigners currently held in Kurdish detention in northeast Syria for a price. 

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have criticised the trials, which they say often rely on circumstantial evidence or confessions obtained under torture.

Iraq has also already tried thousands of its own nationals arrested on home soil for joining IS, including women.

It has begun trial proceedings for nearly 900 Iraqis repatriated from Syria and sentenced four to death last month under its counter-terrorism law. 

The country remains in the top five "executioner" nations in the world, according to an Amnesty International report released last month.

The number of death sentences issued by Iraqi courts more than quadrupled from 65 in 2017 to at least 271 last year.

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