BAGHDAD – Russia resettled 30 children of jailed and deceased Islamic State members from Iraq, on Sunday, in a minor breakthrough to the deadlock over what to do with the foreign families to IS militants.
Maksim Maksimov, the Russian ambassador to Iraq, said the children were Russian. Their mothers are incarcerated at a Baghdad prison, according to the office of Russia's ombudsman for children's rights, Anna Kuznetsova.
The children, some appearing as young as three or four years old, were led through Baghdad's international airport to a Russian state plane to take them to Moscow. Many of the girls wore headscarves and conservative garb. A few appeared anxious and afraid; others looked with wonder around the airport and appeared excited to fly. None of the children appeared to have reached their teenage years.
Kuznetsova, wearing rubber gloves and a disposable surgical gown, chaperoned them to the plane. She arrived earlier Monday to meet with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
An official at Iraq's Justice Ministry said the children's fathers were IS members and were killed fighting for the group in Iraq.
Officials barred reporters from speaking to the children and did not provide any specifics about their cases. It is unclear who will take care of the children when they arrive in Russia or where they will be resettled.
But there could be thousands of children in Iraq and Syria born to foreign fighters who have nowhere to go since the Islamic State group's so-called caliphate began to crumble in 2016.
Foreign governments have been reluctant to repatriate IS suspects and their wives, widows, and children, leaving authorities in Iraq and Syria to put them in camps and jails instead.
Russia, though, has been proactive about identifying children of Russian nationality, saying it would be dangerous to leave them to grow up in a radicalized environment only to return to Russia with violent intentions later.
Kuznetsova's office said it had identified 123 Russian children in Iraq who required resettlement, and 699 Russian children across the region who had been "brought to the Middle East by their parents" and could also return to Russia.
Approximately 5,000 Russians were believed to have flocked to the Islamic State group during its heyday earlier this decade. At its peak it held territory spanning most of northern Syria and Iraq, and claimed responsibility for terror attacks across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
But with the group nearly defeated, territorially, in Syria and Iraq, and its numbers diminished, those recruits are leaving behind a challenging legacy in their children.
The group flown to Russia Sunday is among the largest repatriated at single time, and Maksimov, the ambassador, promised more flights would be forthcoming.
"This sort of work is very difficult and without the help of the Iraqi government and institutions, it would not be possible to achieve these positive outcomes," he said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Bodner in Moscow contributed to this report.