West Asia

Fighting in Syria continues after 'Islamic State' prison break

Published : January 24, 2022 16:19 IST

Kurdish security forces have deployed throughout al-Hasaka as fighting continues. Photo: SDF/AP photo/picture alliance

Syrian Kurdish forces backed by U.S. troops are trying to regain control of a prison housing IS suspects.

Fighting at a prison in the northern Syrian city of al-Hasaka entered a fourth day on January 23 as the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to battle fighters from the extremist "Islamic State" (IS) group after a breakout at the facility. The Kurdish forces said the militants attacked the prison once more on January 23 and tried to break the security cordon around it. In a statement, the SDF said the attack had been repelled and the IS fighters driven back into a residential area. Another attack by IS militants coming from outside the city was also thwarted, a spokesman said.

Almost 80 IS members and 39 Kurdish fighters have been killed in the violence at the Ghwayran jail since it was first attacked by IS militants on January 20, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group, affiliated with the Syrian opposition, has been monitoring the country's conflict since it broke out in 2011. The Observatory said that at least seven civilians have also been killed in the fighting, which has seen U.S.-led coalition forces carry out airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces. U.S. troops were also reported to have taken up positions around the prison, which houses people suspected of belonging to IS.

Additionally, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on January 24 warned that nearly 850 children faced immediate risk from the violence. A representative from the organization based in Syria said nearly 10,000 children and their mothers lived in either camps or detention centers in northeast Syria and faces risks of being caught in the violence.

What happened at the prison?

On January 20, IS militants set off a car bomb near the prison gates, enabling dozens of inmates to escape. The SDF said initially that it had foiled the prison breakout and arrested scores of militants. Later, however, it admitted that inmates had taken control of parts of the jail. The Observatory said that Kurdish forces had managed to recapture more than 100 detainees who had tried to escape but that many more remained on the run. Their exact numbers remain unclear.

Who is in the prison?

The Ghwayran jail is the largest facility where the SDF holds people suspected of affiliation with the IS group, though it is unknown how many inmates are at the prison. However, relatives of many inmates say they are young children or people who have been arrested on trumped-up charges for refusing to be conscripted into the SDF. IS militants once held vast parts of Syria and Iraq but lost most ground after a long military altercation with Kurdish forces from both countries, who were backed by the United States and other powers. The prison attack is their largest operation in the country since 2019.

Growing resentment

The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch says some 12,000 men and boys, including as many as 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are being held by the SDF in several detention centers. Civic groups have accused the SDF of employing torture at some, allegations denied by Kurdish authorities. The detentions, often in what rights groups call inhumane conditions and sometimes without charges or trial, have led to resentment on the part of Arabs living in the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria, who say they are suffering from racial discrimination. Local Arab elders say support for IS in their communities has grown as a result of the perceived mistreatment.

tj/rs (AP, AFP)