December 11, 2019 / 4:17 PM / 8 months ago

New Finland leader: 'silent blessing' given to bring home Islamic State kids

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland’s new prime minister said on Wednesday the center-left coalition government had given its “silent blessing” to the Foreign Minister to go ahead with plans to repatriate children of women who traveled to Syria to join Islamic State.

FILE PHOTO: A boy carries bread on his head at al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 2, 2019. Picture taken April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo

The remarks by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, a day after she took office, could set the stage for a conflict within her five member center-left coalition, which has yet to agree a position on the issue of repatriations.

The coalition’s second biggest party, the Centre Party, which toppled Marin’s predecessor last week, has so far withheld support for the Foreign Ministry’s plans.

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he had nominated a special envoy to look into how more than 30 Finnish children currently trapped at the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria could be brought home.

“(Our) guidelines include the idea that at least the children could be brought to safety from the camp within a reasonable timeframe,” Haavisto told reporters, adding that it was not clear how quickly that could take place.

The Red Cross says around 68,000 people are being held in Al-Hol, mostly the family members of defeated Islamic State fighters, two thirds of them children. Finland is one of many EU countries trying to decide what to do about their citizens.

Haavisto said Syrian Kurdish forces, who have kept the Islamic State fighters and their families under custody at camps since they took the jihadist group’s last enclave, were opposed to the idea of separating children from their mothers.

“If separating a child from their guardian is not legally or factually possible, the premise is that the child’s interest is decisive,” he said.

Haavisto has come under heavy political pressure in recent weeks for his active approach in trying to bring the children back to Finland.

The Centre Party has been frightened by the rapid rise in polls of the opposition nationalist Finns Party, which says repatriating Islamic State detainees could endanger Finland’s security.

Marin took office on Tuesday after the Centre Party withdrew its support from Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne last week, forcing him to step down as prime minister. At 34, Marin is the world’s youngest national leader. All five coalition leaders in the cabinet are women, four of them under 35.

Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Peter Graff

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