ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it had deported two Islamic State militants — a German and an American — beginning a programme to repatriate fighters that has caused friction with its NATO allies since it launched an offensive in northern Syria.
Allies have worried that Islamic State militants could escape as a result of the Turkish offensive, which began last month. Turkey has accused Western countries, especially in Europe, of being too slow to take back citizens who travelled to the Middle East to fight on behalf of the militant group.
Since launching its cross-border assault, Turkey has been seizing territory from Kurdish militia who have been holding thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their family members, including foreigners.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said last week Ankara would begin to send Islamic State militants back to their home countries starting on Monday, even if the nations the fighters came from had revoked their citizenship.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German fighter were deported on Monday. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said fighters would be sent to their native countries.
The 23 others to be deported in coming days were all European, including a Dane expected to be sent abroad later on Monday, as well as two Irish nationals, nine other Germans and 11 French citizens.
“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed, with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified,” Catakli said. “The process of repatriating foreign fighters to their countries will continue with determination,” he was cited as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Turkey launched its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia last month, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move U.S. troops out of the way.
The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a U.S. ally against Islamic State, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across northeast Syria and has also overseen camps where relatives of fighters have sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.
The Turkish offensive prompted widespread concern over the fate of the prisoners, with Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against Islamic State and aid its resurgence. Turkey has rejected those concerns and vowed to combat Islamic State with its allies.
Ankara has repeatedly urged European countries to take back citizens fighting for the jihadists. It has also accused the YPG of vacating some Islamic State jails.
European states are trying to speed up a plan to move thousands of jihadists out of Syrian prisons and into Iraq.
So far, Denmark, Germany and Britain have revoked citizenship from some fighters and family members.
Last week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying that there are 1,201 Islamic State prisoners in Turkish jails, while Turkey had captured 287 militants in Syria.
On Monday, state broadcaster TRT Haber said Turkey aimed to repatriate around 2,500 militants, the majority of whom will be sent to European Union nations. It said there were 813 militants at 12 deportation centres in the country.
Erdogan said Turkey had captured 13 people from the inner circle of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a U.S. raid last month.