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After week-long battle, US-backed Kurdish group recaptures Syria prison from IS

Syrian Democratic Forces say Islamic State fighters used children as human shields in bold attack at Gweiran complex; almost 200 said killed

Soldiers with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces check a house in Hassakeh, Syria, January 25, 2022. (Hogir Al Abdo/AP)
Soldiers with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces check a house in Hassakeh, Syria, January 25, 2022. (Hogir Al Abdo/AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — US-backed Kurdish-led forces said they wrestled control of the last section of a prison controlled by Islamic State terrorists and freed a number of child detainees used as human shields. It ended a weeklong assault by the extremists on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria.

The attack was the biggest by IS since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019 and came as the terrorists 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 US-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 US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “The operation today was on the cells where child detainees were held. We were able to surround a number of terrorists who had taken them as shields and we killed them.”

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

Shami said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered.

The terrorists 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, IS terrorists were joined by others rioting inside the facility. Around 200 armed terrorists were believed to be holed up in the northern wing at one end of the prison complex, holding hostages from among the prison staff.

A fighter with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces stands guard in Hassakeh, Syria, January 25, 2022. (Hogir Al Abdo/AP)

The Syria 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 terrorists, 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.

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 terrorists 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 terrorists. Later it said inmates continued to surrender.

US soldiers deploy in Hassakeh, Syria, January 25, 2022. (Hogir Al Abdo/AP)

The SDF, backed by US-led coalition Bradley Fighting Vehicles and air support, had been closing in on the prison wing controlled by the armed terrorists. Fighters from the SDF and other security teams took control of adjacent buildings and used loudspeakers to call on the terrorists to surrender.

The Islamic State group’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria was crushed by a years-long US-backed campaign, but some fighters remained at large in sleeper cells that have increasingly killed scores of Iraqis and Syrians in past months. Prison riots have been common, where thousands of suspected IS terrorists have been held. But the attack launched late Thursday was the boldest and most ambitious.

Nearly 100 sleeper cells from outside the prison attacked the facility after dark, ramming vehicles against its walls and detonating car bombs to create a diversion. They were joined by rioting inmates, and some managed to escape.

The SDF said the total number of fugitives remained unclear.

A recording obtained from inside the prison by a teenage detainee described a violent onslaught that left multiple children dead and many wounded inside the facility. Shami said at one point the IS terrorists had seized control of the hospital inside the prison. The teenage boy who was injured in the head said medical assistance was not available.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi poses in his office during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, July 23, 2021. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

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.

“You must intensify your efforts and work around the clock,” he said, addressing border officials and security forces, according to a statement from his office. “This area is very important for us and the enemy as well, and this requires redoubling efforts.”

Al-Kadhimi said he was confident Iraqi security forces would be able to thwart IS. “You are stronger today than you were yesterday,” he told them. IS overran vast swathes of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 largely because Iraqi forces retreated.

Al-Kadhmi was accompanied by the ministers of defense and the interior. Iraq shares a 599-kilometer (372-mile) border with Syria.

“I say to the terrorists of Daesh: Do not test us, you have tried a lot and failed. You will try a lot and you will fail,” he said, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.

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