Kurdish forces are battling ISIS fighters entrenched inside a besieged Syrian jail despite earlier claiming they had fully retaken it after a violent jailbreak.
Potentially dozens of other ISIS members are still at large after the terror group blasted open the compound's concrete walls last Thursday and seized the jail’s weapons cache.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced victory over the militants in the overcrowded Ghuwayran prison in Hasakah, northeastern Syria, on Wednesday, but the group said on Thursday that around 80 to 90 inmates are still entrenched in one of the cells and yet to surrender.
The news came after the SDF claimed control of the “entire” prison, after a six-day siege with help of the US and British special forces deployed in the region, and air cover with choppers and an airstrike. The SDF deployed thousands of soldiers around the complex hosting around 3,500-5,000 people jailed for their IS affiliation, including foreign fighters and 700 minors.
At the height of the siege, teenage boys who are usually kept in another part of the prison complex were being held by the jihadists as a human shield. Many of them are “cubs of the caliphate” - boys trained to fight by ISIS - but others are children of foreign jihadists who travelled to Syria.
One Australian teenager inside the prison sent a voice note to his family saying, “There's a lot of people dead in front of me, I'm scared I might die any time because I'm bleeding, please help me,” The Telegraph reported.
The death toll of the confrontations has reached at least 218 people, according to the latest numbers released by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but the full extent of the damage is not yet known.
The SDF named the operation of retaking the prison, the “People’ Hammer” and on Wednesday Farhad Shami, the group’s spokesperson described the battle inside the prison as the “last dance” of the jihadi militants.
They released a video showing their troops re-entering the jail:
However, a report by Rojava Media centre, a pro-Kurdish research institute in northeast Syria, showed that tens of inmates are still missing. It also claimed that Kurdish-led forces have downplayed the number of ISIS fighters that managed to escape, meaning the true number of escapees could be much higher.
The SDF has released varying numbers of IS fighters who carried out the attack and figures of rearrested and killed inmates suggest that dozens might have managed to flee the prison in the first days of the mayhem that spilled over into the residential areas nearby.
The jailbreak plunged the area into chaos, and thousands of people living near the compound were forced to flee their homes.
Farhad Shami, the spokesperson of the SDF, published a video that showed people dressed in orange jumpsuits and grey sweaters lined along the prison walls with bullet marks and black smoke from the fire of the recent clashes.
ISIS pulled off a coordinated plot, which involved Islamists setting off car bombs and repeatedly reversing a pick-up truck into the jail walls last week, while inmates started a riot inside by burning their mattresses and blankets.
The militants from outside managed to enter one of the buildings inside the prison to take over the weapon cache, the group even published the video of the attack.
It showed prison staff captured by the Islamists wearing black masks while ISIS’s flag hung on the wall behind. The SDF claimed that their forces had freed 27 prison personnel taken hostage during the mayhem.
The large-scale prison break by the group was the second such attempt since 2020, with the SDF clamping down on the first one much faster.
The SDF guards the jail, which houses thousands of jihadists. PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images
An estimated 12,000 people accused of ISIS affiliation are being held in prisons in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria.
The US Commander of the anti-ISIS Coalition, Major General John Brennan, congratulated its Syrian allies, but admitted that more is needed to contain the resurgent threat from ISIS.
He said, "This is not a problem solely within this city. This is a global problem that requires many nations to come together to develop an enduring long-term solution."
The SDF and Western allies declared victory over ISIS in March 2019, when it eradicated the militants’ last holdout in a small patch of land in Baghouz. But sleeper cells have been active ever since in the Syrian desert, and in the no-man’s-land of neighbouring Iraq.
Last week ISIS militants carried out an attack on an Iraqi military outpost and wiped out an entire 11-man unit in Diyala.
Alarmed by the recent developments in Syria, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi paid a surprise visit to Qaem on the border and announced a new security wall will be built between the two countries to stop the spread of the remnants of the jihadi group.
ISIS, founded by former Sunni insurgent groups held in US prisons in the mid-2000s in Iraq, recruited its militants from inside prisons run by US-backed forces in Syria.
The group controlled a large swathe of land across the Middle East for over five years and attracted extremists across the globe to join the ‘holy war’ of the newly declared caliphate.
Thousands of women and children remain in the overcrowded camps left for the Syrian Kurdish authorities to hold, despite the dire humanitarian situation in the camps and complaints that they are being held without any charges filed against them or hope of a trial.