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LONDON: The Australian government is set to rescue dozens of Australian women and children held in Syrian prison camps, the Guardian has reported.

More than 20 Australian women and at least 40 children are stranded in Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in northeast Syria. The camps, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, house the wives, widows and children of Daesh fighters defeated by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.

Many of their husbands have been killed by the coalition and its partners in the region, and some have been imprisoned. Canberra is now on track to recover more than 20 of those still in the area. The dozens of people who will be repatriated will mostly be children, but officials told the Guardian the rescue operation would take several months.

Most of the children are under the age of six and several were born in the camps of the widows of combatants.

The upcoming mission will be the first time the Australian government has attempted to repatriate citizens from the camps since 2019, when it launched a covert rescue operation to recover eight orphans, including a pregnant teenager.

The government has always claimed security risks prevented any further attempts, but government sources told the Guardian that a rescue mission was underway.

A spokesperson for Clare O’Neil, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, told the Guardian Australia on Sunday: ‘The Australian Government’s top priority is the protection of Australians and Australia’s national interest, informed by advice of national security. Given the sensitive nature of the issues at stake, it would not be appropriate to comment further.

Forty-four Australian children and several widows are being held in Al-Roj camp, which is closer to the Iraqi border than the more dangerous Al-Hol camp, where shootings have taken place and where disease is rampant. More than 100 killings were reported in Al-Hol camp in the 18 months to June.

The SDF, a predominantly Kurdish force, arrested more than 300 Daesh fighters inside the camp last month. His troops seized weapons and freed at least six women who lived as slaves, chained under the control of their captors. One of the women had been in captivity since 2014, when she was just nine years old.

Australia’s push to repatriate citizens comes after several other Western countries adopted similar plans.

The Guardian said Germany had repatriated 91 citizens, France 86 and the United States 26. Kazakhstan had recovered 700 of its citizens, with Russia and Kosovo repatriating more than 200 each.

The United States has urged Canberra to carry out repatriations amid reports of disturbing conditions the children have endured. In July, Yusuf Zahab, a teenager born in Sydney, died of unknown causes. He suffered from tuberculosis and sought help in January amid Daesh attacks on a prison. He was 11 years old when he was taken to Syria against his will by his family, a dozen of whom joined Daesh.

Reports of malnutrition and frostbite suffered by Australian children have been heard in 2020 and 2021.

UN experts said the plans to repatriate the women and children were “fully feasible”.

In a joint statement, they said: “The Australian Government has the ability to do this. Many other governments are doing this now. Australia has an advanced child protection, education, criminal justice and health system that is fully capable of meeting the needs of these children and their mothers.

“The non-repatriation is an abdication of Australia’s treaty obligations and its deeper moral obligations to protect Australia’s most vulnerable children.”

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Guardian that “appallingly harsh conditions” in Al-Hol were getting worse.

“Children here have less food, clean water, health care and education than international standards require. They are constantly exposed to dangers and their rights are ignored. A lack of attention is no excuse for forgetting the women and children here.

“We welcome the efforts that have been made to repatriate women and children to their country of origin. But this camp remains the shame of the international community,” he said.

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