Children stand by tents at the Al-Jadaa camp
Children stand by tents in April 2024 at the Al-Jadaa camp south of Mosul which houses Iraqi families who have been repatriated from Syria's Al-Hol camp. AFP

The United States announced Tuesday it had brought back two dozen Western citizens, half of them Americans, from Islamic State prison camps in northeastern Syria where tens of thousands have languished.

The repatriation is the largest ever of US citizens and comes as rights groups warn of dire conditions in the camps still in use some five years after the ultra-violent extremist movement lost its last territory in Syria.

In a complex operation involving US agencies, Kuwait and pro-US Kurdish fighters, the United States repatriated 11 US citizens, including five minors, as well as a nine-year-old non-US sibling of an American, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

The United States in the same operation facilitated the repatriation of six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens and one Finnish citizen, eight of them children, he said.

"The only durable solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the displaced persons camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate and, where appropriate, ensure accountability for wrongdoing," Blinken said in a statement.

The United States, which produced a limited number of Islamic State militants, has long pushed European governments to step up and bring back their nationals -- often children of the fighters.

Most European countries have done so but slowly and despite initial reservations, especially in countries with a history of jihadist attacks at home such as France and Britain.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped US forces crush the Islamic State movement that once controlled vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, administer the camps and confirmed the latest repatriation.

But Kurdish administration official Faner al-Kaait called foreign countries' repatriation efforts "insufficient" and urged the international community to seek "comprehensive" solutions to the issue.

The Kurdish fighters are holding more than 56,000 detainees with alleged or perceived links to the Islamic State group.

According to a recent Amnesty International report, some 29,000 children are held in the two largest camps, representing "the highest concentration of children arbitrarily deprived of their liberty anywhere in the world."

Blinken did not identify the people who were repatriated.

The New York Times and National Public Radio said the repatriated Americans, who landed at New York's John F. Kennedy airport, included a woman and her nine children.

Brandy Salman was married to a Turkish man who took the family to IS territory in Syria, possibly by deceptively telling them they were going camping, according to media reports. The husband was killed and the family sent to camps.

The other repatriated American was reported to be the son of a former IS member who himself was sent back in 2020.

Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, a naturalized American originally from Morocco, had cooperated by giving information on the Islamic State and says he hopes to counsel others against extremism, according to court documents.

He had located his two sons in Syria -- one a US citizen and one his sibling without US citizenship -- and wants them to be raised by his grandparents in Minnesota as he serves prison time, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned of deteriorating conditions at the camps and questioned the legality of prolonged detention of people, especially children, without charge.

"Detention based solely on family ties is a form of collective punishment, which is a war crime," Human Rights Watch said in its report last year.

The group said that children had been dying at Al-Hol, the largest camp, of preventable diseases, hypothermia and tent fires as well as by drowning in sewage pits.

The only country that has been repatriating people in large numbers is neighboring Iraq, which last month brought back 700 people from Al-Hol.