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Turkey helps Moldovan family escape Islamic State camp in Syria

The woman and her family had been living in al-Hol since 2019, but their exact connection to IS is unclear.

Turkey has reportedly “rescued” a Moldovan woman and her four children from the al-Hol camp for Islamic State (IS) families in Syria.

Natalia Barkal arrived in al-Hol in 2019, but returned home Friday with the help of Turkish and Moldovan intelligence, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Barkal’s husband, who was of Syrian origin, lived in Moldova until 2013. The two eventually came from the eastern European country to live in Manbij in northeast Syria. The husband was killed in 2017, according to Anadolu. The news outlet did not provide details on how Barkal came to reside in al-Hol, the family's exact timeline in Syria, or her husband’s affiliations. The Moldovan news site tv8 also reported on the repatriation, describing it as a joint effort by Moldovan and Turkish intelligence.

Al-Hol is administered by the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of north and east Syria. The administration has repeatedly called on countries to take back their citizens in the camp, but repatriations have thus far been limited. The 65,000 people in the camp live in poor conditions and have varying degrees of allegiance to IS. Most al-Hol residents are women and children from Iraq and Syria, but there are thousands of foreign women and children as well.

Most recently, France took back some children from al-Hol in June.

An autonomous administration official told Al-Monitor that Turkish intelligence enabled the Moldovan family’s escape from al-Hol. The official did not immediately provide further details, other than the move was not sanctioned by the administration.

“Turkish intelligence smuggled them out of the al-Hol camp,” the official said. “They didn’t leave in an official way.”

Vera Mironova is a research fellow at Harvard University who is in touch with dozens of female residents of al-Hol. She said people who flee al-Hol usually go to Idlib in rebel-controlled northwest Syria. The Turkish involvement in this operation could consist of Turkish authorities allowing the Moldovan citizens to enter Turkey via the border with northeast Syria.

Al-Hol women "say you cannot just appear at the Turkish border,” Mironova told Al-Monitor. “You would never be able to do that without your home government asking Turkey to allow you.”

Other European governments have gotten their citizens home from the camp via Turkey, she said, pointing to Finland as an example.

In a statement Friday, the autonomous administration said that Turkish intelligence has repeatedly sought to break IS-affiliated women and children out of al-Hol.

“We the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria turn to the world to hold Turkey responsible for the escape and welcoming of Daesh organization members,” the statement read, using the Arabic-language acronym for IS.

The camp is guarded by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are the main fighting force in northeast Syria. A chain link fence surrounds the area, which is in a desert region near the Iraqi border. There have been several escapes in recent months. The SDF and its international allies defeated IS territorially in 2019.

The SDF is in a state of conflict with Turkey, and Turkey attacked SDF territory in October.

Turkey has around 1,000 foreign IS suspects in its custody and wants to send hundreds of them back to their home countries. The government has stated its intention to extradite foreign IS fighters.

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