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U.S.-backed forces retake Syrian prison a week after ISIS assault

“The operation today was on the cells of the child detainees,” said Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces said they wrestled control of the last section of a prison seized by ISIS militants and freed a number of child detainees they had used as human shields. That ended a deadly, weeklong assault by the extremists on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria.

The attack was the biggest by ISIS since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019 and came as the militants staged a number of deadly attacks in Syria and Iraq that stoked fears they may be staging a comeback.

In the week of clashes, dozens from both sides have been killed, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out nearly a dozen airstrikes and thousands of civilians living nearby have been displaced.

“The whole prison is now under control,” said Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “The operation today was on the cells of the child detainees. We were able to surround a number of terrorists who had taken them as shields and we killed them.”

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Shami said the force was then able to enter the cells and the remaining militants surrendered. A large number of children were freed, he said, but had no specific number.

Shami said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered since the operation closing in on the northern wing began two days ago. He said the preliminary death toll among his force is estimated at 35.

The militants had used child detainees as human shields slowing down the effort to retake the facility located in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, Kurdish officials said.

After breaking into the prison late Thursday, ISIS militants were joined by others rioting inside the facility. Around 200 armed militants were believed to be holed up in the northern wing at one end of the prison complex, also holding hostages from among the prison staff.

The prison complex, known as al-Sinaa or Gweiran prison, houses more than 3,000 inmates, including around 600 minors. Children have reportedly been killed and wounded in clashes, rights and aid groups say.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 124 IS militants, 50 fighters with the Kurdish-led forces and seven civilians were killed in the weeklong attack that extended outside the walls of the prison into residential areas.

Image: Syrian Democratic Forces
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deploy around Ghwayran prison in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on Jan. 25, 2022.AFP - Getty Images

The assault began Thursday just hours before another brazen attack on military troops in neighboring Iraq. Together, they signaled a new spike in violence by emboldened militants who had for months been carrying out low-level assaults, largely on security patrols, checkpoints and other mobile targets.

Eleven Iraqi soldiers were killed in their sleep after gunmen attacked an army barracks in Diyala province on Friday. It was the deadliest attack in months to target Iraq’s military and was blamed on IS, which appeared to be exploiting a security vacuum in Iraq’s north. The vacuum is perpetuated by territorial disputes between the federal government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said earlier Wednesday it had freed 23 of its servicemen held hostage by IS militants.

The SDF, backed by U.S.-led coalition Bradley Fighting Vehicles and air support, had been closing in on the prison wing controlled by the armed militants. Fighters from the SDF and other security teams used loudspeakers to call on the militants to surrender.

“The makeshift prisons throughout Syria are a breeding ground for Daesh’s failed ideology,” said Maj. Gen. John W Brennan, Jr., commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym. “We must thoroughly investigate the circumstances that allowed this attack to happen,” he added in a statement.

An estimated 10,000 suspected IS militants have been held since 2019 and prison riots have been common. But the attack launched late Thursday was the boldest and most ambitious.

ISIS’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria was crushed by a years-long U.S.-backed campaign, but some fighters remained at large in sleeper cells that have increasingly killed scores of Iraqis and Syrians in past months.

Newroz Ahmed, a senior member of SDF, told reporters Wednesday that about 200 armed militants attacked the prison with car bombs and suicide belts and activated other sleeper cells hiding in residential areas around the prison.

In one video released by ISIS, vehicles that had been rammed against the prison walls could be seen. At one point, a car bomb was detonated in a petroleum warehouse near the prison, sparking a fire that lasted a couple of days and acted as a diversion.

Some inmates managed to escape. The SDF said the total number of fugitives remained unclear.

A recording obtained from inside the prison by a teenaged detainee described a violent onslaught that has left multiple children dead and many wounded inside the facility.

Shami said at one point the ISIS militants had seized control of the hospital inside the prison. The teenage boy who was injured in the head said medical assistance was not available. He described seeing children injured and killed.

On Wednesday, Iraq’s prime minister made a rare visit to the country’s border with Syria in a show of support to troops and said Iraqi forces were capable of resisting the Islamic State group.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi was in Ninevah province to inspect security measures.