Kiwis fighting with Syrian anti-govt forces

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 18:20 10/02/2014

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New Zealand passport holders have been identified fighting alongside anti-Government forces in Syria, Prime Minister John Key says.

In some instances, the Department of Internal Affairs had cancelled their passports – some were dual nationality, including Australians, he said.

A small number also had their documents confiscated before they were allowed to leave for the civil war-torn Middle Eastern state, the prime minister said.

Rebel factions have been battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Key refused to say how many Kiwis have been fighting, or give any details.

He knew of no prosecutions, saying "it was handled in a different way".

The revelation comes after weekend reports that Australians were "flocking" to the front line. Across the Tasman, the government fears the fighters will return as hardline radicalised Islamists, ready to launch domestic terror attacks.

"Yes, there is likely to ... have been a small number of New Zealanders who have fought with the rebels in Syria," Key said today.

"There are a small group of people that have gone to Syria to fight. There's a small group that were going to Syria that we stopped ... we have physically stopped some and we are clearly aware of others who are in Syria."

Asked if any of the alleged fighters had been affiliated to extremist Islamists al Qaeda, Key was vague: "I am not going to go into their individual details. I mean, they have fought against the government so you can choose which particular rebel group you think they are fighting for ... it involves people who are opposed to the Assad regime.

"There are a variety of rebel groups but I think my understanding is the largest rebel group is associated to al Qaeda."

In total, fewer than 10 people have had their passports cancelled since legislation was passed in 2005. Other than "some," Key couldn't say how many had links to Syria.

Spy agencies need to be sure of the whereabouts of suspected extremists, he said.

"We certainly need to be clear that if they return to New Zealand whether they pose a threat to other New Zealanders if they have become radicalised ... there is always a risk that someone who goes into that environment comes back to New Zealand in a radicalised state."

He also refused to speculate on the fighters' motives, other than them wanting to overthrow the Syrian regime, or if intelligence had identified a mosque or centre in New Zealand.

"They don't necessarily face charges," he said. "What's fair to say is that various authorities may spend time talking to them and working with them to see what risk they actually posed."

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Key said the intelligence came from both domestic spy agencies, the Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau, and overseas agencies. It bolstered the case for beefed-up spying powers, passed last year.

But tougher anti-terrorism laws – like those in Australia – were not in the pipeline.

"Australian powers are much greater and they have taken a different perspective," he said.


- Fairfax Media

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