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Possible Return of Jihadists Stirs Dissension in France

FILE - French special forces escort a suspected jihadist from a residential building in Strasbourg, May 13. 2014.

With the U.S. troop pullout from Syria, the French government has suggested it may soon repatriate French jihadists held in the Middle Eastern nation. But the idea is deeply divisive at home.

Speaking Tuesday to the French parliament, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said if any French jihadists were expelled from Syria, the government would know who they were and where they were located — and they would be arrested and tried the minute they set foot in France.

The government has not officially confirmed media reports that as many as 130 French jihadists now held in Syria may be coming home soon. France was among Europe's top exporters of jihadists to Syria and Iraq. Many of the hundreds of French who fought with Islamic State and other extremist groups died in battle. Some returned, including several behind the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.

But officials on Wednesday estimated that 250 French jihadists were still fighting in Syria, according to news reports, and dozens are held in the north by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Until now, France has done little to bring them home. But the void left by departing U.S. troops has raised concern about their fate.

Some French politicians are adamantly opposed to the fighters' return. Conservative lawmaker Guillaume Peltier told RMC radio that those who burned their French passports, committed war crimes and possibly committed crimes against humanity had no place in France.

But another leading conservative, Christian Estrosi, feared that groups now holding French radicals might be dissolved and that there was a risk of the fighters going free.

Experts warn that returning fighters and other radicals already here may present ticking time bombs — including those now in French prisons, some of whom may be released in just a few years.