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Syria

EU seeks to stem flow of homegrown fighters to and from Syria

Some 2,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria's civil war, mostly radicalized young men. EU interior ministers have met in Athens, seeking ways to prevent them from leaving, and from returning.

Some 130,000 people have died in Syria's civil war and millions more have fled the conflict, yet some young Europeans are seeking to enter the fighting.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Friday that around 270 Germans travelled to Syria last year to join the civil war, with that number rising. He said Syria had become a more popular destination for "Jihad tourism" than training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

"We do not want people from Germany to take part in the civil war," de Maiziere told his fellow EU interior ministers at the special meeting in Athens. "And we certainly do not want them to return and carry out attacks with their combat experience."

The EU talks coincided with the third day of top-level peace talks in Geneva, where the UN's Lakhdar Brahimi on Friday persuaded the Syrian government and a key opposition alliance to enter direct talks, starting Saturday.

The EU's director of justice and home affairs, Gilles de Kerchove, estimated that a total of 2,000 Europeans went to Syria to fight last year, mostly Muslim men aged 18 to 25. More than a third of the total hailed from France.

Easy to reach

The interior ministers on Friday said that European security services would cooperate more closely in future, sharing data on suspects and seeking to intercept them at border crossings. But de Kerchove admitted in an interview with the AFP news agency that the EU's rules on freedom of movement, coupled with Syria's location, could pose problems.

"They have EU passports and can for example travel to Turkey very easily without a visa. Then they can cross into neighboring Syria and later return - unnoticed and unknown," de Kerchove told AFP. "All of our mechanisms for control at [the EU's] exterior borders were drawn up with an eye on foreign visitors, not on Europeans."

Some of the young fighters, as de Kerchove put it, "just want to have their photo taken with an AK-47 and post that to Facebook, without really fighting." Still, he said that even if just 40 of the 2,000 were to return to Europe with a view to carrying out attacks, "then that would be concerning."

Appeal for help at home

De Maiziere also described the Germans going to Syria as a mixed group, some of whom had long been under observation, and "others forming a new group of young men who have recently become radicalized, often on the Internet."

The German minister said that extra efforts from European governments should be complemented by greater vigilance closer to home, urging parents and friends to keep an eye on loved ones who showed signs of radicalization.

"The whole European Union must stick together and cooperate to defend against such dangers," de Maiziere said.

Greece, the host of Friday's ministerial meeting, took over the rotating presidency of the EU at the beginning of the year.

msh/ccp (AFP, dpa)

DW.DE