ISIS using children as human shields in Syria clashes, say Kurdish forces

More than 150 killed since militants attacked Ghwayran prison in Hassakeh

A Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighter at a damaged part of the defense wall of Gweiran Prison in Hassakeh. AP

Kurdish forces locked down a Syrian city on Monday to trap ISIS fighters who attacked a prison there five days earlier, as the death toll from fierce battles inside and around the jail exceeded 150.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said militants were using hundreds of minors as human shields inside Ghwayran jail in the north-eastern city of Hassakeh. As many as 45,000 residents of the town have fled the fighting, the UN said.

Unicef, the UN children's' agency, called for the protection of about 850 minors detained inside the jail, some as young as 12, warning that they could be “harmed or forcibly recruited” by ISIS.

“As fighting continues, the risk for children increases, including to be harmed or forcibly recruited. Violence might also spread to other prisons, inside the camps and local communities,” Bo Viktor Nylund, Unicef's Syria representative, said in a statement.

“Children in the Ghwayran prison are children and have the right to access restorative justice procedures. We call for the release of children from prison,” he said, adding that detention for children should be a measure of last resort.

The SDF said its advances inside the prison where stymied by the use of hundreds of minors as human shields by ISIS members holed up in a dormitory.

It said the adolescents, who had been detained because of suspected links to the terrorist organisation, were being kept in a “rehabilitation centre” in the jail.

The SDF has been holding thousands of suspected ISIS members in Ghwayran and other detention centres since ISIS was defeated in Syria in 2019. Many of them came to join ISIS from other countries in the region and the West.

Letta Tayler, a counterterrorism lead at Human Rights Watch, said the standoff was an “entirely predictable and avoidable” consequence of countries outsourcing responsibility for their citizens.

“If any of these boys die, some of their blood will be on their home countries’ hands,” she said.

More than 100 ISIS fighters stormed Ghwayran prison late on Thursday, using suicide lorry bombs and heavy weapons, setting off days of clashes inside the jail and in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The fighting died down on Sunday evening as the US-backed SDF consolidated control over areas around the jail and declared the entire city locked down for a week.

“To prevent terrorist cells from escaping, the Kurdish administration in north-east Syria announces a complete lockdown on areas inside and outside Hassakeh city for a period of seven days starting on January 24,” the authorities said.

Businesses were ordered to close with the exception of essential services, such as clinics, bakeries and fuel distribution centres.

Fighters belonging to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces cross a street during clashes with ISIS in the north-eastern city of Hassakeh on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Civilians were sheltering in their homes on Monday as Kurdish fighters backed by the US-led coalition combed the area for militants in hiding, said an AFP correspondent.

The SDF set up several checkpoints at the entrances to Hassakeh, with even tighter security measures imposed in neighbourhoods adjacent to the jail, the correspondent said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that a precarious lull in fighting continued to hold as some militants refused to surrender.

It raised the death toll from the clashes to 154, since Thursday, including 102 militants, 45 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians.

In other parts of Syria's north-east region under the Kurdish administration's control, a 12-hour overnight curfew was set to go into force from 6pm on Monday.

Updated: January 24, 2022, 2:53 PM