Kyrgyzstan has brought back dozens of children from Iraq, becoming the latest Central Asian state to repatriate its citizens since thousands from the region went to fight with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.
A special plane carrying 79 children born to Kyrgyz parents in Iraq and Syria landed at Bishkek's Manas Airport on March 16 as part of a humanitarian mission dubbed "Meerim" (Grace).
Hundreds of women from Central Asia have been languishing in prison in Iraq or at special camps in northeastern Syria since the Islamic State extremist group was largely defeated. Many of their husbands are believed to be imprisoned or dead.
Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry said the repatriation was carried out with the consent of the children's imprisoned mothers in Iraq and on the commitment of relatives in Kyrgyzstan to accept the children into families for upbringing.
It also said the government would support the children's rehabilitation and reintegration.
The operation was conducted with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent.
In a statement, UNICEF representative Christine Jaulmes commended the Kyrgyz government for repatriating the children and "treating them primarily as victims in need of protection."
"Children are just children," the Kyrgyzstan Red Crescent wrote on Facebook. "They are not guilty of anything and adults must care of children no matter where they were born and or their destiny."
More than 800 Kyrgyz, including an estimated 150 women, went to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups during the conflicts in those countries. Most ended up with the Islamic State group.
Kyrgyzstan follows Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in completing a repatriation mission from either Iraq or Syria.
"The United States applauds the Kyrgyz government's repatriation of 79 children from Iraq, which will give these young people a chance to live a normal life in their home country," the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said in a statement.
"The Kyrgyz government deserves praise for its commitment to help the returned children and to carry out all measures for their early rehabilitation, reintegration, and return to a safe and peaceful life."
"We encourage other nations around the world to follow the example set by the Kyrgyz Republic and other Central Asian nations that have made progress in repatriating their citizens from conflict areas," it added.
More than 41,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries joined the Islamic State or other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, both before and after the declaration of its so-called caliphate in June 2014.
At least 6,000 of them are believed to have come from Central Asian countries, according to a 2018 study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College in London.
In addition to several thousand foreign fighters and their wives being held in Iraqi prisons, almost 62,000 people are being held by Syrian Kurdish forces at the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria.
According to UNICEF, there are more than 22,000 foreign children of at least 60 nationalities at the camp.