Syrian Kurds retake prison, ending six-day Islamic State attack


The brazen Islamic State jailbreak attempt and ensuing clashes left more than 180 dead in the jihadists’ most high-profile military operation since the loss of their “caliphate” nearly three years ago.

Kurdish forces on Wednesday retook full control of a prison in northeast Syria where Islamic State group jihadists had been holed up since attacking it six days earlier.

The brazen Islamic State jailbreak attempt and ensuing clashes left more than 180 dead in the jihadists’ most high-profile military operation since the loss of their “caliphate” nearly three years ago.

Ghwayran prison in the city of Hasakeh was thought to hold around 3,500 Islamic State inmates when the initial attack was first launched on January 20 with explosives-laden vehicles steered by suicide bombers.

The Kurdish authorities have insisted no inmates escaped from the compound but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group has said significant numbers were sprung.

In a statement, Farhad Shami of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said days of operations had “culminated with our entire control” over the prison after all holdout Islamic State fighters had surrendered.

With U.S. and other foreign forces stepping in to support Kurdish elite units, the neighbourhood around the prison was secured and the besieged militants inside the prison started turning themselves in.

The SDF — the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration’s de-facto army — had said earlier Wednesday that more than 1,000 Islamic State inmates had surrendered.

The Observatory confirmed that the attack was over, after nearly six full days that turned the largest city in northeast Syria into a war zone.

Mass surrender

Thousands of Hasakeh residents were forced to leave their homes after at least 100 Islamic State fighters stormed the facility last Thursday, in their biggest show of force in years.

In one mosque located at a safe distance from the chaos, hundreds of women and children were huddled together in the biting winter cold.

“We want to go back home,” said Maya, a 38-year-old mother trying in vain to pacify her youngest, adding that “there is no bread, water or sugar here”.

Fighting in and around the prison since Thursday has killed 181 people, including 124 Islamic State jihadists, 50 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians, according to the Observatory.

That death toll could rise, however, as Kurdish forces and medical services gain access to all parts of the prison following the end of the attack.

A tense standoff has gripped the prison in recent days, with Kurdish forces and their Islamic State foes aware they were facing either a bloodbath or talks to end the fighting.

Kurdish forces had cut off food and water to the jail for two days to pressure holdout jihadists to give themselves up, the Observatory said.

The SDF has been reluctant to refer to talks between them and Islamic State fighters, and it remains unclear exactly what led to the end of the attack.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said a Syrian Islamic State jihadist had negotiated with Kurdish forces to end the standoff and secure medical care for wounded jihadists.

Since Monday, Kurdish forces had freed at least 32 prison staff, some of whom appeared in video footage that Islamic State had shared on social media after launching the attack.

‘International problem’

Ghwayran is the prison with the largest number of suspected Islamic State members in Syria and many, from Kurdish officials to Western observers, have warned the jailbreak should serve as a wakeup call.

Kurdish authorities say more than 50 nationalities are represented in Kurdish-run prisons holding more than 12,000 Islamic State suspects.

The Kurdish administration has long warned it does not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, all the Islamic State fighters captured in years of operations.

“This issue is an international problem,” the administration’s top foreign policy official, Abdulkarim Omar, told AFP on Wednesday. “We cannot face it alone.”

He called on the international community to “support the autonomous administration to improve security and humanitarian conditions for inmates in detention centres and for those in overcrowded camps”.

The proto-state declared by Islamic State in 2014 once straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.

After five years of military operations conducted by local and international forces, its last rump was eventually flushed out on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria in March 2019.

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