Middle East

French mom reunited with toddler taken by alleged jihadi father

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve (L) welcomes Meriam Rhaiem (R) upon her arrival with her daughter in Vélizy-Villacoublay near Paris September 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

VILLACOUBLAY MILITARY BASE, France: A young French mother whose two-year-old daughter was smuggled out of the country by her father and reportedly taken to jihadist centers in Syria arrived home Wednesday after they were reunited in Turkey.

Meriam Rhaiem, 25, made headlines in March with an emotional appeal to French authorities to recognize her baby girl as "the youngest French hostage."

Mother and daughter arrived at Villacoublay air base outside Paris at 2:15 a.m. Wednesday aboard a plane chartered by the French Interior Ministry.

"It's a moment of great emotion with the arrival of Meriam Rhaiem and her daughter Assia, after months of waiting," said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve who went out onto the tarmac to meet the plane.

He noted "the trials this young woman has endured, fighting hard for the return of her daughter who was kidnapped in circumstances which aren't clear."

He thanked the Turkish authorities for their role in the family reunion which led to "the best possible outcome."

Rhaiem, holding her child in a beige blanket and flanked by her lawyer who was also on the plane from Turkey, made no comment upon her arrival.

Rhaiem, who lives in eastern France, had said she was certain her French husband, whom she is divorcing, and who is wanted under an international arrest warrant, was in Syria where he was seeking to join jihadists.

The father was arrested last weekend with their 28-month-old daughter Assia in Turkey, where he is still being held, a French Interior Ministry source said.

Assia's father had failed to bring his daughter home after spending the day with her in October last year, and had left France by road bound for Turkey, from where he called his wife regularly and asked her to come and join them.

He had also said he planned to cross into Syria with their daughter to join the Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate.

Cazeneuve told French radio Wednesday that the father "had taken this child into the theater of jihadist operations in Syria", adding she was "in danger every day."

He paid tribute to "a brave mother (who) decided to get her child back."

According to Rhaiem's lawyer Gabriel Versini-Bullara, her husband had become radicalized after traveling to Mecca, asking her to wear the veil, criticizing her for working or banning her from playing music to Assia.

Like a number of European countries, France has expressed concern over radicalized people leaving the country to fight in Iraq and Syria, with fears that they could pose a risk to domestic security on their return.

According to official estimates, around 800 French nationals or residents - including several dozen women - have traveled to Syria, returned from the conflict-ridden country or plan to go there.

France unveiled a bill in July aimed at stopping aspiring jihadists from traveling to Syria.

It includes a ban on foreign travel of up to six months for individuals suspected of radicalization, and gives authorities powers to temporarily confiscate and invalidate their passports.





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