BRUSSELS — Belgium’s judicial authorities said on Tuesday they have repatriated six women of Belgian citizenship who were held in Syria for their suspected connection with the Islamic State group, along with 16 children.
The federal prosecutor’s office said it’s the second repatriation operation after the one that took place in July 2021, when Belgian authorities took back six mothers and 10 children.
The airlift is the largest of its kind carried out by Belgium to bring back the families of jihadists from Syria since the fall of IS in 2019.
“Last night was the final phase of an operation to repatriate 16 Belgian children from Syria accompanied by mothers of Belgian nationality,” Belgium’s federal prosecutor said.
“The military flight landed last night at 1:30 a.m. (2330 GMT),” it added, saying more details would be given at a press conference.
Spokesman Eric Van Duyse told The Associated Press that all the women on the latest flight have been given sentences in Belgium of up to five years in jail.
All the children are under 12 years old. They were taken with the women from the Kurdish-controlled Al-Hol camp to cross the Iraqi border by road before boarding the plane, a judicial source told AFP. They were handed over to the jurisdiction of the Belgian court services on arrival in the country overnight.
The children were to undergo medical examinations before being handed over to youth protection services.
Belgian authorities say returning children must be done for “humanitarian reasons,” and that repatriation operations are also as a matter of national security since it’s easier to monitor people who have spent time in Syria when they are on home soil.
From 2012 onwards, more than 400 Belgians headed to Syria to fight for the IS group, making it one of the European countries that saw the largest number of people go.
In March 2021, Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said Belgium had to do everything it could to ensure the safe return of Belgian jihadists’ children aged under 12.