CANBERRA, Australia – Australia's prime minister said on Friday his government was working with international aid workers to repatriate three orphaned Australian children of a convicted terrorist from a Syrian refugee camp.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would only help the children of extremists — not adults — return from the war zones of Syria and Iraq.
"Where there are Australians who are caught up in this situation, particularly as innocent children, then we will do what I think Australians would expect us to do on their behalf," Morrison told reporters.
The government has previously refused to help Australians who have joined Islamic State fighters in the Middle East then changed their minds.
The three survivors of former Islamic State group fighter Khaled Sharrouf's five children who were brought by their mother Tara Nettleton to Syria in 2014 contacted their Sydney grandmother Karen Nettleton last month, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
The grandmother immediately traveled to the crowded al-Hawl refugee camp in northeast Syria where 17-year-old Zaynab, Hoda, 16, and Humzeh, 8, have been since they fled the Islamic State fighters' last stand in the Syrian village of Baghouz.
Zaynab is heavily pregnant and has her own two children with her, Ayesha, 3, and Fatima, 2. Both Zaynab and Hoda have shrapnel wounds, ABC reported.
Morrison said his government is working with the Red Cross to get the children out of Syria to a country with an Australian diplomatic post.
Once the children have been identified and their citizenships confirmed, they would be issued with travel documents to Australia, Morrison said.
Karen Nettleton was negotiating with Kurdish authorities who control the camp to get them out, ABC reported.
The grandmother said she feared that her eldest granddaughter and her unborn baby might not survive if she gives birth in the camp.
"They're just kids. They're Australian children. They're orphan children. They're my children. They're not going to be a risk to anyone," Nettleton told ABC.
The siblings' father in 2017 became the first dual national to be stripped of Australian citizenship for actions contrary to his allegiance to Australia.
Sydney-born Sharrouf slipped out of Australia in 2013 on his brother's passport because his own had been canceled because of a conviction for his part in a thwarted terrorist attack plot in Australia. He was left with Lebanese citizenship.
Sharrouf horrified the world in 2014 when he posted on social media a photograph of his young son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described that image as "one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed."
Sharrouf's wife died in Syria of medical complications a year after she arrived in Islamic State territory with their children.
Sharrouf and his two eldest sons Abdullah, 12, and Zarqawi, 11, were killed in an air strike near Raqqa, the Islamic State-group's stronghold in Syria, in August 2017, the ABC reported.