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Children still held in Syria because release too dangerous, Canada says

Last Updated Oct 30, 2018 at 8:57 pm PDT

Dr. Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE) and John Letts, father of Jack Letts, a British Muslim convert and an alleged member of ISIS, announce plans to secure repatriation of Canadians who travelled to Syria during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – Canada’s foreign ministry says it has opened a communication channel with the Kurdish jailers of Canadian children and their families in Syria, but hasn’t been able to secure their release because of the volatile security situation.

The response Tuesday from Global Affairs Canada comes after a Toronto-based organization called on the government to come to the aid of Canadian infants and children being held in Syria.

The Canadians detained by Kurdish authorities in Syrian territory include nine families and more than 10 children, including some who were taken to Syria at young ages and others who were born there, said Alexandra Bain, the director of Families Against Violent Extremism.

Bain said the children are facing the outbreak of disease and a harsh winter and the Canadian government has a duty to protect its citizens. She said they live on a diet of rice and pasta and there are no diapers or milk for the infants.

Bain said her group and another British-based volunteer organization want to foot the cost of getting the Canadians out of a war zone and are willing to do the necessary work on the ground, but that the government has to help them.

The group includes Jack Letts, the British-raised son of a Canadian father and British mother, who has been dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the U.K. media. His father, John, joined Bains on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, calling for the release of the Canadians. He branded as “fake news” the reports of his son’s being a terrorist, and laid the blame at the foot of a British journalist, whose use of the moniker stuck.

Bain and Letts were in Ottawa and met with senior consular officials at Global Affairs to plead their case.

“Canadian diplomats have established a communications channel with local Kurdish authorities in order to verify the whereabouts and well-being of Canadian citizens,” said Stefano Maron, a department spokesman.

“The government of Canada is engaged in these cases and is providing assistance, to the limited extent possible.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, however, seems lukewarm to the idea of bringing the group back.

“There is no legal obligation on the government of Canada to repatriate in these circumstances,” Goodale says. “The children are in a very vulnerable position, but they are in a war zone half a world away where Canada does not have diplomatic relations.”

When it comes to returning foreign fighters, Goodale adds if the government has the evidence it will always pursue charges.

A Canadian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation, said even if it were possible for them to leave Syria, the detainees “would most likely be detained by authorities and face serious charges in neighbouring countries.”

Father of ‘Jihadi Jack’ says son’s endeavor to the Levant was naive

John Letts told the Hill press conference that he thinks his son, Jack, is innocent and that he needs treatment for various illnesses contracted while in prison. He says his son was never involved in the violence perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

“I want everyone here to know what we know: that Jack worked with others in the religious opposition to ISIS in Raqqa (the city the Islamic State claimed as its capital), that he condemned ISIS on social media, and that he wants to spend the rest of his life living peacefully and bearing witness against ISIS,” Letts said.

Letts says that by saying that publicly he is violating British court orders that could get him thrown in jail when he returns to the country.

He and his wife, Sally Lane, were charged by British police in 2016 with funding terrorism after they tried to send their son money to get their son out of Syria.

Letts said previously that his son’s Kurdish jailers are willing to hand his son over to Canadian authorities. He also maintains Global Affairs Canada told the family for months that it was working to get their son released but that the department recently decided it’s too dangerous.

“It obviously has something to do with the upcoming election,” Letts said Tuesday. “We have fairly good evidence of the British having cracked the whip and said you have to toe the line — no one breaks the line of letting people back — and I think Canada is responding to that.”

Earlier this month, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer criticized the Trudeau government over reports that consular officials initiated contact with Letts, whom Scheer described as a “known jihadi fighter.”

Letts calls Scheer’s assertions about his son a lie.

Bain said all those imprisoned in Syria should be vetted by Canadian authorities and it is possible some should face charges for their activities abroad.

“They were all captured and detained in a war zone, and they must be thoroughly investigated by Canada’s security services and some will undoubtedly face justice.”

— with files from Cormac Mac Sweeney for 1310 NEWS