Hundreds feared dead, including children, as week-long Isis prison siege in Syria ends

The Gweiran jail holds 3,000 people

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Wednesday 26 January 2022 18:08
<p>Islamic State militants surrender after clashing with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, at Gweiran Prison</p>

Islamic State militants surrender after clashing with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, at Gweiran Prison

Scores of children in northeast Syria are among those feared dead after Islamic State militants held hundreds hostage during an almost week-long siege at one of the country’s largest prisons.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Wednesday that they had finally regained control of the Gweiran prison complex in Hasakah, which houses 3,000 Isis militants, including hundreds of Syrian and foreign children, some as young as 12 years old.

The fierce fighting saw Isis militants seize control of a north wing of the complex, using child inmates as “human shields”, SDF spokesperson Ferhad Shami told The Independent. He said they still do not know the nationalities of the more than 300 suspected Isis militants killed in the operation, or whether children are among the dead, as they are still searching for bodies.

United Nations officials, British MPs and rights groups have urged countries, including the UK, to immediately repatriate their citizens, saying the deadly attack which saw hundreds killed was an important “wake up call”. British citizens are thought to be among those inside.

Among those prisoners definitely held hostage was a 17-year-old Australian who, in voice recordings heard by The Independent, said he was shot in the head but could not stop the bleeding as there were no doctors.

An American teenage inmate and a Canadian prisoner, also detained within the facility, said they had had no water or food in six days, nor medical supplies to treat the wounded.

They told Human Rights Watch that “tens” of children were dead, and a makeshift hospital inside the prison had come under “anti-aircraft cannon” fire.

The siege began when Isis militants staged a mass riot on Thursday within the facility.  Militants in the surrounding neighbourhoods simultaneously attacked, reportedly setting off two truck bombs to breach the walls and take control.

Since then the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces together with the US military and, reportedly, British special forces, battled to regain control of the prison.  SDF officials said Wednesday afternoon they had full control and all the militants had surrendered.

The UN, citing reports from the prison, said more than 300 people, mostly Isis detainees but also members of the Syrian security forces, were killed in the fighting.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a UN Special Rapporteur, on Tuesday urged the world to “save their boys”  and said the “abject refusal” of countries to repatriate their children “beggars belief”.

The Australian teenage prisoner caught up in the fighting claimed in voice notes sent to his family that he had seen the bodies of children pile up, and one was as young as eight years old.

“I’m very scared. There’s a lot of people dead in front of me. I’m scared I might die anytime. Please help me,” he said in the recordings. “My friends got killed... there’s a lot of people dead, a lot of people injured. People are screaming next to me. People are scared.”

“We’re getting hit from every side,” he added.

Other foreign prisoners – who are suspected Isis militants – told Letta Tayler from HRW’s Crisis and Conflict division that children had been killed in the onslaught and some survivors struggled to stay alive.

"It’s been five days, we’re without food we’re going into the sixth day,” an 18-year-old American prisoner told Ms Tayler overnight.  “We don’t know what’s going on here. We’re getting shot at we’re getting bombed.”

The Canadian man said a child died in front of him. “His leg was busted open... We tried to stop the bleeding with a shirt. He looked very young,” he added.

Gweiran is run by the Syrian Kurdish authorities who, supported by a US-led coalition, helped dismantle Isis’s territorial caliphate in 2019.

Since then they have been criticised by rights groups for holding children in overcrowded, makeshift prisons in inhumane conditions as well as detaining thousands without charges or trial. Most of the inmates in the prisons, centres and camps in northeast Syria are a mix of Isis militants and people who lived under Isis rule and were captured during the battles to crush the so-called caliphate.

In February the UN’s child agency Unicef said there were an estimated 22,000 foreign children of at least 60 nationalities among them being held in conditions that amount to arbitrary detention and torture. Many of them were taken to the so-called caliphate by their parents and so, according to the UN, should be considered “victims of terrorism and as children in need of protection under international law”.

Kurdish officials have defended the centres, saying they have repeatedly warned the international community they do not have the resources to hold so many people while fighting the growing threat of Isis. They have said their appeals for states including the UK to repatriate their citizens have largely gone unanswered.

In 2019 The Independent visited the facility, interviewing two British prisoners, one American and one German citizen — all suspected Isis members detained during the capture of Baghouz. None had faced trial at the time. The fate of the four is unknown.

American soldiers deployed in Hassakeh, Syria

The Foreign Office declined to deny or confirm whether British citizens and children were inside the prison but it is understood they are monitoring the situation closely.

“It has been clear for some time that the government’s policy of abandoning British nationals in unstable detention facilities in North-East Syria was a disaster waiting to happen,” Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell told The Independent. “What more will it take for ministers to heed the warnings of our closest allies that Britain’s refusal to take responsibility for its citizens has potentially catastrophic security implications?”

Maya Foa from UK-based charity Reprieve, which has been supporting British families stuck in Syria after the collapse of Isis, said it was very likely Britons were inside Gweiran, although they had essentially been held incommunicado.

She said the children held hostage by Isis were extremely vulnerable to being abducted and re-trafficked by the Islamist militants, who also operated as a “sophisticated criminal trafficking gang”.

“Rather than acting on this, rather than repatriating people, the British government has been shoring up these detention sites and funding the building of new ones,” she said.

What more will it take for ministers to heed the warnings of our closest allies that Britain’s refusal to take responsibility for its citizens has potentially catastrophic security implications?

Andrew Mitchell, MP

The UK has provided millions of pounds worth of funding to build a new Syrian prison that is currently holding hundreds of children of Islamic State members.

The SDF says that around 200 inmates and 27 of its fighters have been killed in the fighting, which finally ended on Wednesday.

Several rights groups told The Independent they were unable to get confirmation of who was actually in the prison.

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