BEIRUT (AP) — An Albanian boy who was taken to Syria by his mother when she joined the Islamic State group has been freed from a crowded detention camp in northeastern Syria and is on track to return home to Italy with his father, Red Cross and Red Crescent officials said Thursday.
The story of 11-year-old Alvin, who found himself with no family at the al-Hol camp after his mother died amid fighting in northeast Syria, has captivated public attention in Italy after a glitzy TV news show reported on his father's agonized efforts to bring him home.
The evacuation also comes amid the shifting strategic landscape in Syria's northeast. The Kurdish-led forces that run al-Hol camp have recently aligned themselves with the Syrian government, after they were effectively abandoned by the U.S. after years of fighting IS together.
The Kurds' pivot to Damascus paved the way for the boy's release Wednesday and his flight under Red Crescent escort from the northeastern city of Qamishli to the Syrian capital, Damascus, instead of through northern Iraq.
Video snippets provided to The Associated Press showed Alvin at the airport in Damascus late Wednesday, walking under escort from Red Crescent staff with a limp because of an injury reportedly sustained in the same violence that took his mother's life.
Syria's State-run news agency SANA said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad handed over Alvin to IFRC President Francesco Rocca and said it was ready to provide all necessary facilities to help child victims of extremist groups in Syria. It criticized Western countries, saying they "claim to respect (humanitarian) laws but shirk their commitments."
Alvin arrived in Lebanon on Thursday afternoon. In Beirut, Albania's Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj met with Alvin at the Italian Embassy to deliver the boy's personal documentation, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on social media.
"He comes from hell, in an aggravated physical and psychological situation. He is, however, good and healthy ... It's good news that he speaks Albanian, though he has been among Arabian language for many years," said Albanian Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj in a telephone interview with Top Channel private television station.
Some 70,000 people now reside in al-Hol camp, mostly women and children including about 11,000 foreigners. The site has been the largest holding facility for people linked to IS. A few other detainees have been returned home to countries like France, Russia and Australia. But Alvin's release was the first case to be facilitated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
"I hope that this will bring some peace and the prospect of healing to his family," said IFRC President Francesco Rocca, who personally participated in Alvin's case. "What we can and should be focusing on is the fact that there are still over 68,000 people — two-thirds of which are children — living in the al-Hol camp."
"This morning's news is positive news, but it is barely a drop of relief in an ocean of suffering," he added.
Five years ago, Alvin's mother joined IS and took him with her into territories that the extremist group controlled. After she was killed, word got out confidentially through the Red Cross and Red Crescents' "Restoring Family Links" program.
Through that program, the father, identified as Afrim Berisha on the Italian TV show "Le Iene," got a message from his son: Alvin was alive, alone at al-Hol, and asking to be brought home. Today, the only language Alvin can speak fluently is Arabic.
Alvin's father reached out the Italian Red Cross, and after a negotiation with the Italian and Albanian authorities, the boy now has an Albanian passport and a permit to stay in Italy with his family.
The case got a jolt from the flashy, fast-paced Italian TV news magazine and satire program, which trekked to al-Hol with the father for a teary-eyed reunion with the boy weeks ago.
However, he wasn't allowed to leave with his son. According to the report, the Kurdish authorities refused to hand over the boy because no Albanian official was present. So the father returned empty-handed to Italy, where he has permanent residence.
Social media and public opinion then kicked in to shift political will. Mounting pressure in the Lombardy region, where the boy was raised, led the regional council to pass a resolution to bring the boy home.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent opened up a negotiation with Italian and Albanian authorities to arrange the necessary paperwork and authorizations. On Wednesday, the boy spent the night in a room with a psychologist, and was taken to the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Thursday.
The Damascus connection has raised the prospect that Syria's President Bashar Assad might be trying to get political mileage and reap a public-relations success from the boy's release.
A number of European countries have been reluctant to let former members of IS or their relatives return — but the groundswell of public attention appears to have made an exception of Alvin's case.
"I fully appreciate that the situation in al-Hol is complex. There is no simple solution, and there are legitimate concerns that have been raised by governments," said Rocca, the IFRC president. "But those concerns must be balanced with the need to treat people humanely."
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.