Aust urged to accept IS fighters, families

Colin Brinsden

Australia is facing pressure to repatriate captured Islamic State fighters and families trapped in Syria on two fronts.

Turkey wants Australia to take back three ISIS fighters it has in custody as Ankara begins repatriating foreign fighters to their homelands.

The United States is also offering to extract Australian families of ISIS fighters that remain snared in Syria, an offer aid agency Save the Children says the Morrison government should immediately accept.

In an interview with the ABC, counter terrorism ambassador at the US State Department Nathan Sales said all countries have a responsibility to take back their citizens and is offering to help.

While the Australian government has so far repatriated a group of orphans, it argues a mission to pull out the remaining women and children would be too dangerous.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the government will take a case-by-case approach but will not put Australian lives at risk.

"The Australian government continues to work closely with the US and other like-minded countries on the complex challenges associated with foreign fighters and their families located in the Syrian conflict zone," a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Mr Sales said the US has previously used its military to extract fighters and families that are its own citizens.

Asked if he had made the offer to do the same for Australia, Mr Sales said: "I'm not going to get into private diplomatic negotiations ... but we have made offers to all our coalition partners."

He said the US and many other countries believe it is appropriate to have these people prosecuted in their own national courts.

"We have been encouraging countries that don't see it the same way to take their folks back and prosecute them," Mr Sales said.

"Leaving these folks in camps in the desert or ad hoc prison facilities, it's not going to solve the problem, it's just going to kick the can down the road."

There are around 60 Australian women and children being held in camps in Northern Syria.

Save the Children director of policy and international programs Mat Tinkler welcomed the US offer.

"The Australian government should take responsibility, immediately accept this offer and bring the Australian women and children home," Mr Tinkler said in a statement.

"The Australian government has run out of excuses not to repatriate its citizens."

Separately, Turkey's ambassador to Australia Korhan Karakoc told The Weekend Australian Ankara wants Canberra to co-ordinate the return of three ISIS fighters, but says the Australian government was reluctant to take them back.

Turkey has so far sent up to 10 fighters back to Britain, the US and Germany, saying it cannot continue to house them.

The Australians are among 959 foreign IS fighters and families in Turkish custody in northern Syria.

"Turkey, at this stage, is not in a position to take a unilateral step because we have to co-ordinate, at the end of the day," Mr Karakoc told the newspaper.

"It really requires some formalities. The Australian side should be willing to accept them."