Some of the Kazakh nationals who have gone to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq are "victims of radical propaganda," the deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), Nurgali Bilisbekov, has said.
"In actual fact, these are people who have been deceived, citizens of our country who have been deceived. When they see the real motivations of the terrorists' actions, many of them realized their mistake. They want to come home but they are afraid," Bilisbekov was quoted as saying on March 20.
Bilisbekov said that around 150 Kazakh citizens are fighting abroad alongside terrorist groups.
"Alongside them, there are about another 200 compatriots, comprising the widows, wives and children of the militants," Bilisbekov said.
The figure quoted by Bilisbekov appears in line with that given on previous occasions by the Kazakh security services. However, it is notable that Bilisbekov refers specifically to Kazakh children being present in Syria.
In November, KNB chairman Nurtai Abykaev said that "over 300" Kazakh militants in Islamic State had formed their own jamaat (fighting unit). Around half, or 150, of the Kazakh citizens in Syria and Iraq were women, Abykaev said.
Bilisbekov's figure of 200 women and children seems to imply that there are an estimated 50 Kazakh children are present in Syria.
The figure of 150 Kazakh men fighting in Syria most likely comes from a video that circulated on the internet in November 2013. The footage showed a group of around 150 Kazakh militants, who said they were in Syria.
Militants in the video said they had come to Syria with their wives and children.
The presence of Kazakh children in Syria was highlighted in a video released by the Islamic State group in November, in which a group of Kazakh adults and children were filmed undergoing ideological and military training.
The video, titled Race Toward Good, caused outrage in Kazakhstan, and the government quickly moved to ban it and prohibit its distribution.
In December, Kazakhstan's Deputy Prosecutor General, Andrey Kravchenko, said that the country's law enforcement services were "well aware" who the children in the video were.
Estimates Probably Low
While the exact numbers of Kazakh nationals fighting in Syria is unknown, the KNB's estimates of 150 male Kazakh militants fighting in Syria, with 200 women and children also supporting the Islamic State group, are likely on the low side.
The actual figures are almost certainly somewhat higher.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group found that between 2,000 and 4,000 men and women from five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- have left for Islamic State-held territory.
The Race Toward Good video also implied that fresh Kazakh recruits were arriving in Syria, suggesting that there could still be an outflow of new militants from Kazakhstan.
It seems that the KNB's figures are intended to represent the number of Kazakh militants currently fighting in Syria and Iraq, rather than the total number of Kazakhs who have fought there, including those who have been killed. No estimate of casualty figures has been given.
In his March 20 comments, Bilisbekov said that 15 Kazakh citizens had returned from "terrorist training camps" abroad to Kazakhstan since the start of 2014.
"Kazakhstan is one of the first [countries] to introduce responsibility for taking part in armed conflicts," Bilisbekov said, referring to the country's introduction of laws criminalizing fighting abroad, which came into effect in January 2015.
However, while Uzbek law states that those with no prior convictions who turn themselves in will not be held criminally liable, there is no such provision in Kazakhstan.
Bilisbekov said that "a differentiated approach" was being applied to each returnee.
Of the 15 returnees, three had been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
Criminal investigations are underway in two other cases, Bilisbekov said, while in the case of two others, the "aims of their return" to Kazakhstan are "undergoing clarification."
"The remaining eight persons were absolved from criminal liability in connection with their nonparticipation in terrorist activities," Bilisbekov said, without giving further details of the cases.
Bilisbekov did not mention any Kazakh militants who may have returned from Syria or Iraq to other Central Asian countries or elsewhere in the region.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk