By Sophie Louet and John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – France is preparing for the return of dozens of French jihadists held by Kurdish authorities in Syria after the United States announced the withdrawal of its forces, its interior minister said on Tuesday, marking a shift in Paris’ policy on the issue.
France, like other European nations, has been wrestling with how to handle suspected militants and their families seeking to return from combat zones in Iraq and Syria, as well as those in detention, after Islamic State lost huge swathes of territory.
Government policy until now has been to categorically refuse to take back fighters and their wives. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has categorised them as “enemies” of the nation who should face justice either in Syria or Iraq.
“The Americans are disengaging from Syria and there are people who are in prison and held because the Americans are there and they will be released. They will want to come back to France,” Christophe Castaner told BFM TV.
“I want all those who return to France to be put immediately into the hands of justice,” he added, responding to an unsourced report by BFM that 130 French jihadists will be released in the coming weeks.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 U.S. troops and air support from nations including France, are holding about 150 French citizens in north-eastern Syria, including 50 adults, according to military and diplomatic sources.
Excluding families, officials estimate 250 French jihadists are still fighting in Syria, including 150 in the Hajin area, one of the final bits of territory held by Islamic State in eastern Syria, and 100 in Idlib province.
French officials in private say that they will have no choice but to change policy on citizens who went as jihadists to fight in the Middle East. Paris is already trying to repatriate minors on a case-by-case basis.
Washington’s decision to withdraw from Syria quickly has left Paris fearing that French jihadists will either disperse or fall into the hands of the Syrian government if the Kurdish-led forces strike a peace deal with the government in Damascus.
“Given the evolution of the military situation in north-east Syria, American decisions, and to ensure the safety of the French people, we are examining all options to avoid the escape and dispersion of these potentially dangerous people,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told a daily briefing on Tuesday.
As well as the headache of how to deal with returning jihadists, France is grappling with the threat of homegrown militancy after suffering a series of deadly militant attacks over the past three years.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)