Australia PM: Islamic State orphans face hurdles to return

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister said Tuesday that hurdles remain to repatriating three orphaned Australian children of a convicted terrorist from a Syrian refugee camp and that national security interests must come first.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was working with the Red Cross to repatriate three children and two grandchildren of slain Islamic State group fighter Khaled Sharrouf from the al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria.

"Australia's national security interests always come first," Morrison told Radio FiveAA. "There are a lot of hurdles to clear on this and Australians can be absolutely satisfied that we will follow those processes extremely closely."

Morrison is campaigning for his conservative coalition to be re-elected for a third three-year term on May 18. He argues that his government is stronger on national security and border protection than the center-left opposition Labor Party.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the offspring of the Sydney-born Sharrouf should not become an election issue.

"These kids should not be a political football," Shorten told reporters. "Probably if they can get a lot of love, then I suspect that'll be the best way to help reabsorb them into Australian life."

The Sydney grandmother of Sharrouf's children, Karen Nettleton, has expressed frustration at the delay in returning the kids to Australia since they reached the camp in mid-March. She has made three trips to the Middle East in bids to bring them back to Sydney.

Morrison suggested that the children would not return to Australian anytime soon. He declined to give reasons for the delay.

"There are processes to be followed and there is still a long way to go on these things," Morrison told reporters.

The eldest of Sharrouf's three surviving children, 17-year-old Zaynab, said she is pregnant and fears giving birth in a tent.

"That is my biggest fear, to give birth here," she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "Because I've heard a lot of stories about people giving birth inside their tent and a lot of them haven't worked out."

She shares her tent with her 16-year-old sister, Hoda, and 8-year-old brother, Humzeh. Zaynab also has her two children with her — Ayesha, 3, and Fatima, 2.

Nettleton said she was told by Australian authorities that the family had to cross the border to Turkey before Australian officials would help them.

Zaynab said the siblings should not be blamed for their predicament.

"We weren't the ones that chose to come here in the first place. We were brought here by our parents, and now that our parents have gone ... I want to live a normal life," she said.

The siblings' father in 2017 became the first dual national to be stripped of Australian citizenship for actions contrary to his allegiance to Australia.

Sharrouf slipped out of Australia in 2013 on his brother's passport because his own had been canceled due to a conviction for his part in a thwarted terrorist attack plot in Australia. He was left with Lebanese citizenship.

Sharrouf horrified the world in 2014 when he posted on social media a photograph of his young son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described that image as "one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed."

Sharrouf's wife, Tara Nettleton, brought their five children from Sydney to Syria in 2014. She died in hospital a year later of a perforated intestine.

Sharrouf and his two eldest sons — Abdullah, 12, and Zarqawi, 11 — were killed in an August 2017 air strike near Raqqa, at the time the Islamic State-group's stronghold in Syria.

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