Standoff near Syrian prison holding IS militants continues

AP , Sunday 23 Jan 2022

Clashes between US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters and militants continued for a fourth day Sunday near a prison in northeastern Syria that houses thousands of members of the Islamic State group, the Kurdish force said.

This photo provided by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces shows some Islamic State group fighters, who were arrested by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces after they attacked Gweiran Prison, in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. AP

The standoff follows a bold assault by the extremists that breached the premises of Gweiran Prison, allowed an unknown number of militants to escape and killed dozens of U.S.-backed fighters who guard the facility.

The Kurdish forces said militants staged a new attack on the prison Sunday in an attempt to break the security cordon and support inmates who are still in control of parts of the prison, the largest facility in Syria housing IS militants. More than 3,000 suspected IS militants are believed to be held in Gweiran, including over 600 under the age of 18.

In a statement, the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the attack on the northern section of the prison in the city of Hassakeh was repelled and the militants were chased into a nearby residential area.

SDF spokesman Siamand Ali said another attack by IS fighters arriving from outside the city was also repelled. He said the Kurdish forces seized control of some buildings near the prison where the militants have been holed up.

A resident near the prison said warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition flew over the prison earlier Sunday, breaking the sound barrier. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces were heard calling on IS militants in the prison and in surrounding buildings to turn themselves in. A war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said helicopters threw fliers over the city, urging residents to report suspicious activities.

The militants have taken cover in residential areas surrounding the prison, including in Zuhour neighborhood which was cordoned off by security forces. Hundreds of civilians fled the area for safety.

The attack launched Thursday was the biggest by IS militants since the fall of the group's ``caliphate'' in 2019. Its demise came after IS lost its last territory in Syria in following a yearslong military campaign backed by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the prison break on its Aamaq news service Friday, describing it as ongoing.

In an ambitious attack, more than 100 militants armed with heavy machine guns and vehicles rigged with explosives attacked the facility aiming to free their comrades. A car bomb was detonated nearby at a petroleum warehouse, creating a diversion and leaving fire and smoke in the air for two days.

A video posted by the militants late Saturday showed vehicles ramming through what appears to be the walls of the prison, creating large holes. Dozens of men were seen walking in the facility in the dark, seemingly escaping the prison. The Kurdish-led forces said Friday they have so far arrested over 100 inmates who escaped but the total number of fugitives remains unclear.

Freeing convicts and imprisoned comrades has been a main tactic of the group. During their 2014 surge that overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria, IS carried out multiple prison breaks.

In another video posted on the IS news service, the militants showed two dozen prison staff, some in military uniforms, taken hostage, including some who appeared bruised and beaten. One militant read out a statement to the camera and another stood guard with what seemed to be either a saw or a machete. Both militants were masked.

The Kurdish forces said late Saturday the men were probably among the prison kitchen staff with whom they lost contact since the assault began late Thursday.

The SDF sent reinforcements, including anti-terrorism units and internal security, to the area, according to Ali. He said about 100 militants attacked the prison but it is not clear how many militants from sleeper cells and fugitives are taking part in the ongoing operation.

In its version of the attack, IS quoted one of its militants in a statement posted late Saturday on its news service who said the attack began with two foreign suicide bombers who detonated two trucks at the gate of the prison and along its walls, causing major damage and casualties. Then militants fanned out, first heading to the prison towers and the petroleum warehouse. A second group attacked a Kurdish post nearby while two other groups clashed with nearby patrols and cut supply lines to undermine the prison defenses.

The assault coincided with riots inside the prison, where militants seized weapons and held guards and prison staff hostage, the militant group said, claiming that it freed more than 800 militants, some of whom are taking part in the ongoing operation.

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