Britains top police officer says the three London teenagers who allegedly stole jewellery from their parents to fund a trip to Islamic State (Isis) territory can return home without fear of being prosecuted for terrorism.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, cleared the way for Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, to return home to their families if they can be convinced to do so.
The three girls, all from the same east London school, went to Turkey last month and then on to Syria to an area controlled by the terrorist group, believed to be intending to become jihadi brides.
Hogan-Howe and his head of counter-terrorism, Mark Rowley, were appearing in front of MPs on the home affairs committee, watched by relatives of the girls who believe police kept crucial information from them that could have alerted them to the fact the teenagers were in danger of being lured by the terrorists.
In a tense session for the two officers, committee chair Keith Vaz MP told them the alleged errors in the case were a big blow to the Met’s reputation.
The families had been keen to see how the teenagers would be viewed by Britains counter-terrorism establishment if they ever returned.
Assistant commissioner Rowley said: We have no evidence in this case that these three girls are responsible for any terrorist offences.
They have no reason to fear, if nothing else comes to light, that we will be treating them as terrorists.
Rowley said the three girls were different to someone running around in northern Iraq and Syria with Kalashnikov who then apologised for having committed terrorist offences.
Rowley and Hogan-Howe agreed with Vaz that the girls would be returning to their families if they decided to come back.
Tasnime Akunjee, solicitor for the three families, told the Guardian: Effectively this is immunity.
Police went into the session having had to admit that with hindsight, letters meant for the girls parents, saying a 15-year-old school friend had fled to join Isis weeks earlier, should have been handed directly to their parents. Instead they were given to the girls, who hid them.
The families only found the letters, concealed in school textbooks in their bedrooms, after the girls disappeared on 17 February.
The three east London pupils had been identified as being among seven friends of the 15-year-old who disappeared in December and had been interviewed by counter-terrorism officers as witnesses.
The families have criticised police for not telling them that a schoolfriend had fallen for terrorist propaganda.
Hogan-Howe, facing calls to apologise, said he was sorry for the families pain and also sorry the letter we intended to get through, didnt get through. Its clear that failed. It was intended for them and failed and for that of course were sorry.
In sign the committee is considering criticising the Met for its handling of the case, Vaz told Hogan-Howe: This is a huge propaganda coup for Isis and a big blow to the credibility of what is supposed to be the best police service in the world.
It needed that letter to go to the parents not to hand the letter to a 15-year-old girl.
The police officers said the girls had allegedly funded the trip by stealing gold jewellery from their families. They paid more than £1,000 in cash to a east London travel agent, who sold them the plane tickets to Turkey.
However, in an interview with the Guardian the families questioned the claims made by the police that the girls had funded the trip with stolen family jewellery. Renu Begum, the sister of Shamima Begum, said she was appalled by the allegation.
Part of the polices case to MPs was that they could not have known what the girls were planning if their own families did not suspect anything. Hogan-Howe said: â€œThere was nothing more we could have done to prevent that. Because, at the beginning, we were trying to get from these girls information about a further young woman who had actually left in December. That was our principle reason for talking to that family.
In hindsight we now know that these girls were planning to go and neither the family, the police, the school nor anyone else realised that.
The police chiefs revealed there had been arrests and progress in criminal investigations targeting those people behind the flow of more than 80 youngsters to Isis.
Rowley said 87 families had approached the Met about people 26 women and 61 under the age of 21 going to Syria.
He said two people had been arrested last month for alleged child abduction offences by detectives investigating the travel in December of the 15-year-old from the Bethnal Green Academy. Those arrested and now on bail were women aged 20 and 21.
Hogan-Howe said a minimum of 700 Britons had travelled to Isis-held territory.
Earlier, Amiras father Hussen Abase, Khadijas cousin Fahmida Aziz and Shamimas sister Sahima Begum said there had been no indications the girls had been radicalised.
Begum said: My sister was into normal teenage things. She used to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Asked why he thought his daughter may have left, Abase said he had no idea and that his daughter was the sort of child to call him for a lift home after dark.
Turkeys ambassador to the UK, Abdurrahman Bilgic, told the committee that British delays in handing over information about the girls had slowed down action in his country.
The girls boarded a flight on 17 February, but embassy officials were only informed at 7.55pm the next day by email, which was picked up the following day, he said.
Details of the case were only published on the Interpol database on the following Sunday, the committee was told.
Bilgic said: I think the primary obligation is on the shoulders of the source country because they should be stopped at the source country before exiting the country.
You know the enormous pressure on the shoulders of Turkey. Our neighbourhood is not a rose garden.
Bilgic said CCTV footage of the girls had been identified in Istanbul. I dont know how and via which route they went but I saw the footage, I saw them on TV at a bus terminal but I dont know which route Gaziantep or another border town, I dont know, he said.