US-backed Syrian forces capture prison from ISIS after a week

The attack was biggest by militants since fall of 'caliphate' in 2019

Kurdish forces say they have regained control of the last section of a prison taken over by ISIS militants, ending a week-long assault by the extremists on one of the largest detention centres in Syria.

The attack in Hassakeh, northern Syria, was the biggest by ISIS fighters since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019.

Dozens from both sides have been killed, the US-led coalition backing the Kurdish forces has carried out nearly a dozen air strikes 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.

He said about 3,000 inmates had surrendered. It was not clear how many of them were minors.

Ghwayran prison in the city of Hassakeh was thought to hold around 3,500 ISIS inmates when it was attacked on January 20 by explosives-laden vehicles steered by suicide bombers.

The Kurdish authorities say no inmates escaped from the compound, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said significant numbers broke out of the jail.

Mr Shami said days of operations had “culminated with our entire control” over the prison after all ISIS fighters had surrendered.

With US 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 army – said earlier on Wednesday that more than 1,000 ISIS inmates had surrendered.

The Observatory confirmed that the attack was over, after days of fighting that turned the largest city in north-east Syria into a war zone.

Thousands of Hassakeh residents were forced to leave their homes after at least 100 ISIS fighters stormed the jail 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 huddled together in the biting winter cold.

“We want to go back home,” said Maya, 38, as she tried to pacify her youngest child. “There is no bread, water or sugar here.”

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

The death toll could rise as Kurdish forces and medical services gain access to all parts of the prison.

A tense stand-off gripped the prison in recent days, with Kurdish forces and their ISIS 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 the extremists to give themselves up, the Observatory said.

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

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said a Syrian ISIS fighter had negotiated with Kurdish forces to end the stand-off and secure medical care for his wounded comrades.

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

Ghwayran is the prison with the largest number of suspected ISIS members in Syria and many, from Kurdish officials to western observers, have warned the jailbreak should serve as a wake-up call.

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

The Kurdish administration has long warned it does not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, all the ISIS 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 “caliphate” declared by ISIS in 2014 once straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.

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

Updated: January 27, 2022, 4:03 AM