Officials in Kosovo say 110 citizens have been returned to the country from Syria, including four alleged fighters with the extremist group Islamic State (IS). https://t.co/5lnxAmRk1M pic.twitter.com/PPnkhDz2Y3
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) April 20, 2019
The population of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is nominally 90 percent Muslim, but largely secular in outlook.
More than 300 Kosovo citizens have traveled to Syria since 2012 and 70 men who fought alongside the terrorist groups were killed.
“Today in the early hours of the morning an important and sensitive operation was organized in which the government of Kosovo with the help of the United States of America has returned 110 of its citizens from Syria,” Kosovan Justice Minister Abelard Tahiri said at a press conference.
Tahiri did not specify what role the United States had played but a plane with a U.S. flag on its tail was seen in the cargo area of Pristina airport as the operation was ongoing.
Authorities said among those who were returned were four ISIS terrorists, 32 women, and 74 children, including nine without a parent.
The four terrorists were immediately arrested and the state prosecutor said indictments against them will soon follow.
After several hours at the airport, two busloads of women and children were transported under police escort to an army barracks just outside Pristina.
Police said 30 Kosovan ISIS terrorists, 49 women, and 8 children still remain in the conflict zones.
“We will not stop before bringing every citizen of the Republic of Kosovo back to their country and anyone that has committed any crime or was part of these terrorist organizations will face the justice,” Tahiri said.
“As Kosovo, we cannot allow that our citizens be a threat to the West and to our allies.”
International and local security agencies have previously warned of the risk posed by returning the terrorists. In 2015, Kosovo adopted a law making fighting in foreign conflicts punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
The United States commended Kosovo for the return of its citizens and called other countries to do the same.
“With this repatriation, Kosovo has set an important example for all members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the international community to follow. We applaud their compassion in accepting the return of this large number of civilians,” the U.S. Embassy in Pristina said in a statement.
There have been no ISIS attacks on Kosovan soil, although more than 100 men have been jailed or indicted on charges of fighting in Syria and Iraq. Some of them were found guilty of planning attacks in Kosovo.
Prosecutors said they were investigating 156 other suspects.
The government has said a form of radical extremism had been imported to Kosovo by non-governmental organizations from the Middle East after the end of its 1998-99 war of secession from Serbia.
By Fatos Bytyci