Kurdish forces have entered al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria to track down and capture Islamic State radicals who have been intimidating, recruiting and murdering residents.
The two-week operation began with the arrest of more than 30 men and women, reported Rami Abdul Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Both Syrians and foreigners suspected of supporting the Islamic State terror group – also known as Isis – have been caught in the sweep by 5,000 Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces troops, local militiamen and police.
The US is providing "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" support with the aim of degrading and disrupting Islamic State activities within the camp, US spokesman Wayne Marotto told AFP.
The camp is divided into two sections, the larger for Syrians, Iraqis and other Arabs, and the smaller for non-Arabs. In both, Islamic State loyalists have taken charge. They are reported to have imposed strict dress codes and religious practices and to recruited children to create a new generation of militants.
Residents who resist the regime are liable to be killed, harassed, beaten or forced to relocate to another camp. Those who can pay people smugglers may try to escape. Camp residents without financial support from families suffer greatest deprivation as they have no resources to buy supplies or bribe guards.
There have been at least 47 murders in the camp this year; 30 of the victims were Iraqi refugees who have been confined alongside Isis elements.
Al-Hol is home to 62,000, of whom 80 per cent are women and children. While most are Syrians and Iraqis, there are 2,500 families of 60 other nationalities. They have not been allowed to return to their home countries, where the authorities argue they pose a security threat.
Among the rejected women is Shamima Begum, who left Britain at 15 to join Islamic State, has been deprived of her citizenship, and abandoned to harsh confinement in Syria. The Kurdish authorities, who have repeatedly appealed for the repatriation of camp women and children, regard al-Hol as a ticking timebomb ready to explode.
The UN and humanitarian agencies provide shelter, primary healthcare, food, water and protection for detention camp residents, but conditions in al-Hol are crowded and squalid, security is lax, and basic services are unavailable.
An unknown number of non-Arab foreigners, including children, have died of exposure to freezing weather, disease and accidents in the camp. In December and January alone, 29 children and newborns succumbed to hypothermia.