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More than 200 reported dead after Isis prison break in Syria as clashes continue

Fighting between US-backed Syrian forces and Islamic State militants has entered a fifth day

Bel Trew
Monday 24 January 2022 18:56 GMT
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighters take their positions at the defense wall of Gweiran prison in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, 23 January 2022
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighters take their positions at the defense wall of Gweiran prison in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, 23 January 2022 (AP)
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More than 200 people have reportedly been killed in northeast Syria as a fifth day of fighting rages on between US-backed Syrian forces and suspected Islamic State militants following an attack on a prison housing thousands of extremists.

The brazen assault by Isis fighters on Gweiran prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh on Thursday is one of the deadliest since the militant group’s so-called caliphate was declared defeated by a US-led coalition nearly three years ago.

The detention facility is one of the largest of its kind in Syria and is home to 3,000 suspected Isis militants, including more than 600 minors from dozens of countries, as well as Syria and Iraq.

Officials within the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told The Independent that at least 170 suspected Isis militants, 27 members of its troops and seven civilians had been killed since inmates first staged a mass breakout late on Thursday. Save the Children said audio testimony indicated multiple children held in the facility were likely among those killed.

British-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll among SDF troops was higher, putting it at 52 dead alongside 100 Isis militants killed. The Independent was unable to independently verify the casualty figures.

After days of fierce fighting, the SDF on Monday said they were closing in on the prison where dozens of militants remained holed up in a northern wing, with reports they were holding hostages including children.

Other Isis fighters remain at large in the adjacent residential areas, where security forces set up cordons and used speakers to urge the attackers to turn themselves in.

Farhad Shami, a spokesperson for the SDF, told The Independent that militants were using hundreds of minors held in the prison as “human shields”, preventing a final push by Kurdish-led forces to take the facility.

On Monday afternoon, the SDF said it had managed to recapture parts of the prison and that several militants had surrendered. They shared a photo supposedly showing Isis fighters walking away from the complex, with smoke billowing in the background. By the evening the Rojava Information Centre, a local monitoring group, said that American and British special forces were participating in the operation.

The US-led coalition fighting in Syria said the violence first erupted when suspected Isis militants seized arms from prison guards before killing them and attempting to destroy a new, more secure facility under construction next to Gweiran.

Gunmen in the surrounding area simultaneously attacked from the outside. There were unconfirmed reports that a truck detonated, breaching the perimeter of the prison, and that militants also combed the adjacent neighbourhoods attacking civilian homes, even beheading one victim.

The Kurdish-led forces said they have arrested more than 100 inmates who escaped. The number who remain on the run is unknown.

“While it is militarily defeated, Daesh remains an existential threat to the region,” said Maj. Gen. John Brennan, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, using the Arabic acronym for Isis. He confirmed that coalition intelligence, surveillance and strike capabilities had been deployed to assist SDF forces in Hassakeh.

“Due to its severely degraded capability, Daesh’s future survival is dependent on its ability to refill its ranks through poorly-conceived attempts like the prison attack,” he added.

Kurdish security forces deploy in Syria’s northern city of Hassakeh amid ongoing fighting with Isis, 22 January 2022 (AFP via Getty )

Save The Children on Monday called for the immediate evacuation of children from the prison , many of whom have been held there for three years.

Sonia Kush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director, said that responsibility for anything that happened to these children “lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria.”

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, also called for the release of the detained children, warning that violence may spread to other prisons or in camps holding families and children of suspected Isis members in Syria.

"Children in the [Gweiran] prison are children and have the right to access restorative justice procedures. We call for the release of children from prison. Detention of children should only be a measure of last resort and for the shortest time possible.”

Aid agencies working in the area said the violence had displaced hundreds of people, but no-one could leave the conflict zone as the city was under full military lockdown.

Isis, meanwhile, used its channels to relay what it said happened.

A video posted by the militants late on Saturday showed vehicles ramming through what appears to be the walls of the prison, creating large holes. In the footage, dozens of men were seen walking through the facility in the dark, seemingly escaping the prison.

In another video posted on an Isis news service, jihadists paraded several prison staff as hostages, including some who appeared wounded. One masked militant read out a statement to the camera and another stood guard with either a saw or a machete.

The SDF told the Associated Press there may have been prison kitchen staff they lost contact with when the assault began.

Isis has also claimed on its channels that two foreign suicide bombers detonated trucks at the gate of the prison, causing major damage and allowing militants to enter and head to the prison towers. They also claimed a second group attacked a nearby security post and patrols, cutting key supply lines.

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