BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurdish-led forces arrested 71 suspected militants, including a religious leader and a militant recruiter, in an ongoing security sweep at a sprawling camp that houses families and supporters of the Islamic State group, a spokesman said Wednesday.
The campaign, which started Sunday, is assisted by the U.S.-led coalition and aimed at curbing the escalating violence and killings inside al-Hol camp. The Kurdish-led forces have put the number of killings there since the start of 2021 at nearly 50 but U.S officials say it’s more than 60.
Many fear the camp, which initially housed refugees and is now home to 62,000 people from more than 50 countries, is becoming a breeding ground for the next generation of IS militants. Kurdish and U.S. officials have called for countries to repatriate their citizens languishing in the camp.
Ali al-Hassan, spokesman for the Kurdish-led internal security forces, said the sweep is still ongoing. Those arrested so far include an IS religious leader inside the camp, a recruiter, a communications expert and a security officer. All of them are Iraqi, aged between 18 and 62. He said more details on the nationalities of those arrested would be made public later, not ruling out that they include foreign nationals.
“The (Islamic State) group is trying to reorganize through active cells in the camp,” al-Hassan said in a WhatsApp message.
The religious leader, a native of Iraq’s Anbar province, had joined militants long before IS was formed in 2014 and later became a judge with a self-styled IS tribunal. He continued his work with IS after hiding among residents of the camp, the Kurdish-led forces said. Al-Hassan said he was issuing religious edicts on who is to be killed inside the camp.
Al-Hol’s residents include wives and children of IS members, most of them held there since 2019 as the final coalition-led push against the militant group unfolded. At the time, family members and IS supporters holed up in areas once controlled by the group fled or were evacuated to al-Hol and other camps.
The Syrian Kurdish-led forces and the U.S.-led coalition announced victory against IS in March 2019, after the militants lost all their territorial holdings. Thousands escaped into the desert while others were detained and held in detention facilities.
About 5,000 troops took part in al-Hol sweep, which also uncovered an underground tunnel under construction.
More than 80% of the camp’s residents are women and children, two-thirds of them under the age of 12. The majority are Syrian and Iraqi but about 10,000 are from 57 other countries. Conditions in the squalid camp have been described as dire, with sparse basic services and poor healthcare. Malnutrition is high among children.