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ISIS detainees seen as strain in Syria

BEIRUT -- The Syrian Kurdish militia partnering with the U.S.-led coalition to fight Islamic State militants said Monday that it is holding a "huge number" of foreign fighters in Syria and none of their home countries want them back.

The head of the People's Defense Units, Sipan Hemo, speaking to reporters in a conference call Monday, said more than half of those detained in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria are foreign fighters from all over the world, including Russia, Europe, China, Japan and Arab countries.

The future of those militants remains unclear and the process for taking them to justice unsettled amid a debate, mostly in Europe, about whether they should be allowed to return home.

Hemo provided no figure for the number of detainees captured by his forces in Syria but added that it was a burden to keep them.

[THE ISLAMIC STATE: Timeline of group’s rise, fall; details on campaign to fight it]

"We suffer from the large number of Daesh detainees that we have now," Hemo said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Hemo said there is a "huge" number of Islamic State foreign fighters and administrators from all over the world. Most of them are from Russia, Europe and Arab countries, he said.

Hemo said his forces have formally asked foreign governments to take their nationals to be tried at home. "Up until now, no one wants to take them back or to try them. We still have them in [local] prisons," he said. "Honestly, we also don't know what their future will be."

Hemo said many of the local fighters were forced to work or cooperate with the Islamic State because they controlled their areas. He said those local detainees will likely face regular courts and will be tried or released. "They are regular people who had to live with Daesh."

Even that is not exactly straightforward. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have no international recognition and the Syrian government, which runs the local courts, doesn't have a presence in the areas liberated from the Islamic State by the U.S-backed forces.

The Syrian Democratic Forces -- with the People's Defense Units as its backbone -- captured two British men last month, and U.S. officials interrogated them and identified them with biometric data and other tools. It was the most high-profile capture publicly announced. British officials said they don't want the two men, who were members of an Islamic State cell who were commonly dubbed the Beatles and were known for beheading hostages, to return home. U.S. officials have said putting the two in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility is not an option.

U.S. officials say the two men represent just a small portion of the hundreds of foreign-born Islamic State terrorists who were captured or killed since October 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Two French nationals, including a woman listed as a key recruiter, appeared in videos posted online last month to speak about the conditions of their detention in Syria.

The U.S. is urging allied nations to help deal with the fighters, saying the militants should be turned over to face justice in their home countries.

The legal issues are daunting. Most nations, including the U.S., would be unwilling to take back detainees unless they have the evidence to prosecute them, and that often is difficult to collect in such battlefield captures.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to raise the issue during a meeting in Rome this week with other members of the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

"We're working with the coalition on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin for disposition," said Kathryn Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for international security affairs. "Defense ministers have the obligation and the opportunity to really explain to their other ministers or their other Cabinet officials just the importance to the mission, to the campaign, to make sure that there's an answer to this problem."

Speaking to reporters traveling with Mattis to Europe, Wheelbarger said the key goal is to keep the fighters off the battlefield and unable to travel to other cities.

"The capacity problem is very real," Wheelbarger said, noting that at one point the Syrian Democratic Forces was capturing as many as 40 militants a day. "Success in the campaign means you get more people off the battlefield. ... These facilities are eventually going to be full."

Information for this article was contributed by Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/13/2018

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