BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Two Islamic State militants from Belgium have escaped custody in northern Syria in the course of Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces there, the head of Belgium’s security assessment agency said on Wednesday.
Paul Van Tigchelt, head of OCAD, told a parliamentary committee that two men and three women, either Belgian or with links to Belgium, were no longer in prison in a camp where they had been held under Kurdish control since the defeat of Islamic State (IS) by U.S.-backed coalition forces in 2017.
Kurdish officials have said almost 800 IS-affiliated foreigners, many of them women and children, escaped Ain Issa camp in northwestern Syria after the Turkish incursion began last week. There are also fears that jihadists held in jails in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria could escape.
“It is unlikely that the FTFs could reach the European continent unnoticed and uncontrolled,” Van Tigchelt said referring, using an acronym for “foreign terrorist fighters”, of which there were about 55 in Syria with links to Belgium.
“This is unlikely, but you should be clear that this is not impossible. And it is unlikely as long as – among other things – that the deal that Turkey struck with the EU holds.”
The European Union and Turkey reached a deal in 2016 under which Turkey agreed to take back migrants, crack down on human traffickers and improve conditions for refugees in return for 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) of aid and visa liberalisation.
Some EU countries are wary of doing anything to anger Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who last week warned that he would “open the gates” and send 3.6 million refugees to Europe if it did not back him in his Syria offensive.
Diplomats and officials have told Reuters that European states are trying to fast-track a plan to move thousands of foreign IS militants out of Syrian prison camps and into Iraq given that the outbreak of fresh conflict in Syria raised the risk of jihadists escaping or returning home.
“An uncontrolled return is the biggest nightmare of the security services,” Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told the committee.
The stated objective of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria is to carve out a “safe zone” to resettle many of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees it is hosting. Ankara also seeks to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish separatist insurgents in Turkey.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Mark Heinrich)