US-backed forces clash with IS fighters in Syrian prison

HASAKA, Syria – Forces of a Kurdish-led militia exchanged fire from rooftops with dozens of Islamic State fighters still locked up in a ...


HASAKA, Syria – Forces of a Kurdish-led militia exchanged fire from rooftops with dozens of Islamic State fighters still locked up in a beleaguered prison in northeastern Syria on Thursday, despite claims by the US-backed militia a day earlier. regained full control of the entire complex.

The Syrian Democratic Forces militia announced on Wednesday that it had resumed Sinaa Jail in the city of Hasaka, home to thousands of former Islamic State fighters, nearly a week after their fellow activists attacked the prison to try to free them.

But when New York Times reporters arrived on Thursday, the first international reporters on the scene, the fight continued.

Kurdish-led forces fired rocket-propelled grenades at the partially destroyed prison complex, and the sound of truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns echoed as they clashed with up to 90 Islamic State militants still fighting from inside. An official from one of the Syrian Kurdish paramilitary groups fighting ISIS said most resisters were among those who stormed the prison, but some were prisoners who had joined forces with them.

The attack on the prison was the most egregious evidence to date of a resurgence of ISIS in parts of Syria and Iraq, nearly three years after the group lost control of its so-called caliphate, a vast swath of territory in both countries. Extremists have also mounted a series of attacks against military forces in neighboring Iraq in recent months.

The prison battle has drawn the US military into the fray to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, providing airstrikes, intelligence and armored vehicles to cordon off the prison. It was the largest confrontation between US forces and ISIS in three years.

Thursday’s fighting also raged in areas surrounding the prison complex.

At a nearby roundabout in central Hasaka, a New York Times crew took cover with local journalists and civilians caught in the middle as SDF forces exchanged fire with gunmen from The Islamic State. The firefight erupted near a small US Army base housing some of the 700 US troops in northeast Syria.

The SDF said two ISIS fighters were killed in the engagement near the roundabout, but no civilians were injured in the clash.

SDF officials did not respond to questions about their assertion on Wednesday that the force had fully taken over the prison. On Thursday, an official said the remaining Islamic State fighters were locked up in different sections of one of the prison’s three buildings.

In a nearby neighborhood, hundreds of Kurdish special forces deployed, going from house to house searching for escaped prisoners and hidden Islamic State fighters.

At the end of an alley, special forces operators lined up young men from some of the houses near a wall as they examined their documents. They asked residents to leave their homes. Leave the doors open, they said over loudspeakers, otherwise they would use force to open them.

The neighborhood was almost empty.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF said the fighting had forced 45,000 people in the city of one million to flee their homes, mostly women and children. Some went to live with relatives while others ended up in shelters in the city.

In one house, a young mother appeared with two boys, wide-eyed and terrified. The woman, Nasreen, who asked to be identified by her first name only out of fear for her safety, said she was trying to keep them warm by borrowing fuel from the neighbour. She said the water had been turned off for the past 10 days.

When asked why she stayed home when most of her neighbors left, she replied, “We have nowhere to go.

Next to the prison complex, a bulldozer emerged from the ruins of a cultural center next to the prison complex carrying the crumpled body of an Islamic State fighter before dumping it in the back of a pickup truck. Across the street, at least four blacked-out tankers lay on their sides, hit by what SDF forces said were an airstrike on nearby buildings by the US-led military coalition against ISIS . One was still burning.

In another building behind the cultural center, which had been hit by an airstrike, SDF fighters pulled the remains of two other ISIS fighters out of twisted metal and rubble.

An SDF spokesman said Wednesday that at least 30 militiamen and more than 100 militants had been killed. The final count should be considerably higher.

The fate of some 700 boys, which the SDF said were used as human shields by ISIS attackers, was still not entirely clear. The boys, aged 10 to 18, have been held in the prison for three years because their parents joined the Islamic State. Some may have been recruited by ISIS as child combatants.

A senior SDF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the boys were in a separate building but mixed with adult prisoners during the siege, and some were given weapons and “pushed into clashes”.

Boys who were picked up or handed over were separated from adult prisoners, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Siyamend Ali, the media chief of the People’s Protection Units, one of the Kurdish factions of the SDF, said he was unaware that any of the child hostages had been killed in the fighting, but reports of this what had happened to all the prisoners was still being assessed.

He said more than 3,000 detainees had surrendered and most were taken to a new detention center built by the US-led coalition that fought Islamic State in Syria. Some of the Islamic State militants still inside the prison are believed to be foreign fighters, he added.

“The prison attack activated sleeper cells in other places,” he said.

Residents of neighborhoods near the prison either fled or were forced by security forces to leave after ISIS attacked the compound last Thursday with suicide bombers and gunmen. A week later, dozens of families gathered at a security checkpoint less than a kilometer from their homes, prevented by security forces from returning due to the continuing danger.

“If you listen to me, you will leave!” a female intelligence officer wearing military fatigues and a pink flower headband shouted at a group of women asking to be allowed to go home. Fighter jets flew over the town as families sat on the concrete pavement, hoping the road would open up. Some carried plastic bags with flat loaves of bread, an increasingly hard-to-find staple in these areas, in hopes of bringing them home.

Fatma Naser, 25, said she and her three young children had been staying with relatives and were desperate to return home.

Her daughter, Maria, clutched a cheap plastic doll dressed in a homemade black dress with rough yellow stitching from which her arm dangled.

“I’m already dead,” said Ftem Awad al-Jamil, an elderly woman with deep wrinkles and tribal tattoos on her face who said she didn’t know her age. Ms Jamil, who wore a torn dark purple scarf held together by safety pins, said she had walked from a neighborhood on the outskirts of town with her daughters and grandsons in the hope of getting home .

“We left because we were scared,” she said. “We were sleeping and ISIS entered the neighborhood.”

She said Islamic State fighters beheaded two of their neighbors, including a policeman, after the prison was taken over. SDF forces confirmed that ISIS fighters beheaded two people.

Ms al-Jamil said the Islamic State fighters were foreigners.

“It was not those from the prison who came to us,” she said. “They are weak. These are the ones that came to us from the desert.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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