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Turkey, Britain Trade Barbs Over Syria-Bound Schoolgirls

FILE - A combination of handout CCTV pictures received from the Metropolitan Police Service shows, from left, British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on Feb. 17, 2015.
FILE - A combination of handout CCTV pictures received from the Metropolitan Police Service shows, from left, British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on Feb. 17, 2015.

Turkish security officials criticized their British counterparts, accusing them of a “reprehensible” delay in providing information on three British schoolgirls who flew to Turkey last week on their way to join Islamic State militants in northern Syria.

The three girls, aged between 15 and 17, are believed to have crossed into Syria, joining thousands of foreign fighters and possibly hundreds of prospective brides from European countries who have enlisted with the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

British officials said the criticism is an attempt to shift blame.

They argue Turkey is not doing enough after months of Western criticism to clamp down on foreign recruits using the country to transit into neighboring northern Syria to swell militant ranks.

'Reprehensible act'

Turkish officials insist they were informed about the girls three days after they boarded a plane in London for Istanbul.

"It is a reprehensible act for Britain, a country famous for its Scotland Yard, to let the three girls leave Heathrow Airport for Istanbul and then let us know three days later," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara.

“Turkey cannot be held responsible for what happened,” Arinc added. “We don’t have a mechanism in place that allows us to question the intentions of tourists and read their minds.”

His remarks echoed a frequent complaint from the Turks that Western powers are not sharing intelligence quickly enough or in sufficient detail with Turkish authorities.

Last year, then-Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu snapped when questioned by the media about the transiting of extremist recruits through Turkey.

"On what basis should we stop them? Turkey is receiving 34 million tourists. Should we say, 'You have a beard, you may be a terrorist?' " Davutoglu asked at the time.

British leaders criticized

London police in a press statement insisted they informed Turkish authorities about the three schoolgirls a day after they flew and "established that the girls had traveled to Turkey."

But they and the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron are also being criticized by British lawmakers for not mounting rigorous enough border controls at British airports to stop teenagers being able to leave the country without proper checks.

The dispute between London and Ankara is a reflection of rising frustration at the difficulty in curbing the flow of recruits from Western countries.

Analysts and Syrian rebel leaders acknowledge Turkey has, after months of turning a blind eye to the movement of militants in its eagerness to see the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, started to tighten its border controls along the frontier with Syria and increase scrutiny of those traveling from Europe and north Africa.

A senior leader of a moderate Syrian rebel brigade, who declined to be identified for this article, told VOA that since September, Turkey has beefed up patrols and interdiction along the border and is making it harder for militants to cross or smuggle oil into Turkey.

"Jihadist visibility is less along the Turkish side of the border," he said.

The increased surveillance at border crossings is not popular among truck drivers, who are facing hours-long delays crossing in and out of Turkey.

The Syrian rebel commander said the screening and holding facilities at Istanbul’s two international airports are generally full of suspected militants and some of his own fighters have been held for further questioning.

"It took us three days to get one of our guys out," he said.

There are also signs of greater surveillance at southern Turkey's domestic airports serving the border towns of Gaziantep, Hatay and Urfa.

Border crossings

Even so, recruits and wannabe brides from European countries are getting through, and many are not being stopped at Istanbul’s airports. U.S. and European intelligence officials estimate that in the past six months about 1,000 foreign extremist recruits have crossed into Syria each month.

The widow of one of the Islamic militants responsible for the terror rampage in Paris in January, Hayat Boumeddiene, had no trouble getting through passport control in Istanbul after fleeing the French capital the day her partner launched an attack on a Jewish food store.

CCTV footage released by the Turkish police show the 26-year-old not being questioned and being admitted in seconds on arrival in the immigration hall at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport.

That easy entrance, as well as Turkish authorities in recent weeks citing widely differing numbers for suspected extremists they have deported, ranging from 400 to 2,000, is prompting Western suspicion that the clamp down isn’t as rigorous as Ankara claims.

Western officials estimate at least 20,000 foreign fighters have joined militant groups in Syria, with at least 3,000 to 4,000 coming from Europe.