BEIRUT, Lebanon. After six days of bloody fighting, Kurdish-led militias who fought Islamic State militants for control of a prison in northeast Syria reclaimed the facility on Wednesday, ending one of the jihadist group’s most daring attacks since the collapse of its so-called Caliphate almost three years ago.
Dozens of militias and hundreds of ISIS fighters have been killed since jihadists broke into a prison in the city of Hasakah last week and joined inmates rioting inside to seize control, taking prison staff and about 700 boys held hostage in the facility. the police officers said.
The militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, fought dormant ISIS cells in nearby areas and then laid siege to the remaining militants, who surrendered on Wednesday after they ran out of food and water.
“The future was clear for them if they didn’t give up,” said Aram Khanna, an SDF spokesman. “The area was completely besieged and completely under the control of our forces. They had no other choice.”
Officials said they are still trying to determine how many of their fighters and how many ISIS attackers and prisoners have been killed. An SDF spokesman said at least 30 militias and more than a hundred fighters were killed.
It was also unclear on Wednesday whether any of the 700 boys used by ISIS as human shields during the siege were injured, nor how many prisoners may have escaped during the fight.
The prison battle has highlighted unresolved humanitarian and security concerns that the West has largely ignored since the SDF, backed by a US-led military coalition, ousted ISIS from its last patch of territory in early 2019.
The militias captured the men, women, and children who survived the collapse of the caliphate and locked them up in prisons and detention camps that were supposed to exist only until other countries repatriate their citizens or help. find lasting solutions for the rest.
Terrorism experts and US officials have long warned that isolation could pave the way for a renewed insurgency.
Consequences of the civil war in Syria
After a decade of fighting, many Syrians are wondering if the country can be rebuilt.
“The makeshift prisons across Syria are a hotbed of failed ISIS ideology,” coalition commander Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr. said on Wednesday, using the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State.”
“This is not just a problem in this city,” he said. “This is a global problem that requires many countries to come together to come up with a lasting long-term solution.”
The Hasakah prison, converted into a training institute, was the largest of the SDF’s and housed thousands of people captured during the fall of the Caliphate. Reflecting the international appeal of the Islamic State, they arrived from countries around the world and were packed into overcrowded cells.
No one was formally charged with the crimes and brought before a judge.
The prison also held about 700 boys whose families had joined the Islamic State. They were considered dangerous by SDF officials, but human rights activists say their detention could violate international law and also contribute to their radicalization, creating a new generation of jihadists.
During the siege of the prison, they became hostages, raising fears that they might be harmed and complicating the SDF’s efforts to retake the prison.
On Wednesday, Mr Hanna, an SDF spokesman, said none of the children were hurt. Other officials were less confident, saying they needed time to figure out exactly what happened to the boys.
During the fighting, there were signs that not all of them were well, including voice messages received by Human Rights Watch from an Australian teenager that he was bleeding from the head and that he had seen the bodies of dead children.
SDF officials interviewed on Wednesday acknowledged that ISIS had taken over not only part of the prison, as they said during the siege, but the entire prison complex.
The militants launched their attack on Thursday by blowing up the entrance with two suicide vehicles, SDF officials said. Dozens of armed fighters stormed in, barricading rioting prisoners in the wards, clashing with guards and taking prison workers hostage, said Nuri Mahmoud, a spokesman for Kurdish fighters in the SDF.
Sleeper ISIS cells in nearby areas took over buildings and granaries, from which they attacked militia forces heading towards the prison.
As the SDF fought its way to the prison, the United States joined in the fight with armored vehicles, attack helicopters and airstrikes.
Over the past two days, SDF forces have besieged four or five buildings where prisoners and attackers have refused to surrender and have been holding prison officials and boys hostage. The security forces knew which building the boys were in and did not use heavy weapons near him, Mr. Mahmud said.
“ISIS tried to use young people in prison to a certain extent,” he said. “The forces were careful about that.”
By Wednesday, the beleaguered fighters were running out of food and water and unable to care for those sick or wounded in the fighting, said Siyamand Ali, head of the Kurdish militant group’s media office.
“We told them that they could return as they were prisoners,” he said. “In the end, they had no choice but to give up or they would all die, so they decided to give up.”
Soon, SDF officials began to release images of long lines of weary prisoners in sandals and tattered clothes lined up in the prison yard after they had surrendered.
SDF officials said it would take time to establish the final death toll, assess all prisoners and treat the injured. According to them, some of the wards were so damaged that the prisoners would have to be transferred to another place.
The prison is located in a predominantly Kurdish area in northeastern Syria, outside the control of the Syrian authorities in Damascus. As the US-backed coalition and SDF pushed ISIS out of the area, it has been run by a special militia-linked administration that operates with broad autonomy but has not been recognized as official government by any other country.
The United States maintains about 700 troops in northeast Syria to work with the SDF against ISIS, in addition to a small base near the Jordanian border to the south.
The attack on the prison was the clearest sign that the Islamic State did not cease to exist when it lost its last piece of territory, the village of Baghouz south of Hasaka, the SDF said.
“We cannot say that ISIS is over,” Mr. Ali said. “It’s true that we got rid of them geographically, but the presence of ISIS continues.”
Hwayda Saad and Asmaa al-Omar provided reporting.