SDF hunt down IS militants after prison retake

AFP , Thursday 27 Jan 2022

Kurdish-led forces hunted down jihadists hiding in the Gweiran prison Thursday, after the prison was hit by an Islamic State group attack a weak ago, as human rights groups appealed for urgent help for wounded inmates.

SDF fighters
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deploy outside Gweiran prison in Syria s northeastern city of Hasakeh on January 26, 2022. AFP

Kurdish-led forces hunted down jihadists Thursday after retaking a Syria prison hit by an Islamic State group attack a week ago, as human rights groups appealed for urgent help for wounded inmates.

Search operations across the sprawling complex in the city of Hasakeh found some jihadists still holed up in one wing of the prison a week after the brazen jailbreak attempt began.

The assault and ensuing clashes around the prison left more than 200 people dead in the jihadists' most high-profile military operation since the loss of their "caliphate" nearly three years ago.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had retaken full control of Gweiran prison on Wednesday, ending six days of battles that turned the largest city in northeastern Syria into a war zone.

In a statement on Thursday, the SDF said search operations inside the jail revealed "pockets of terrorists hiding in a northern section of the prison."

It estimated that around 60-90 fighters were still holed up in one section of the jail and said that its forces have called on them to surrender.

It said that 3,500 IS inmates have so far surrendered to its forces.

In a statement overnight, the SDF said it was "chasing down IS cells on the southwestern outskirts of Hasakeh city".

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "coalition aircraft targeted IS fighters hunkered down in areas around the prison overnight, killing at least seven."

It said 151 IS jihadists, 53 Kurdish fighters and seven civilians had been killed in the six days of violence.

The Kurdish authorities have insisted no inmates escaped from the compound but the Observatory has said significant numbers got away.

'Broader Crisis'

Gweiran held an estimated 3,500 IS inmates, including around 700 minors, when the initial IS attack began with explosives-laden vehicles driven by suicide bombers.

"The Kurdish-led forces' recapture of the prison ends this immediate deadly ordeal, but the broader crisis involving these prisoners is far from over," Human Rights Watch warned on Wednesday.

"The US-led coalition and others involved need to quickly ensure that all prisoners, especially the wounded, ill and children, are safe and receive food, water and medical care," it added in a statement.

Prisoners who surrendered were being transferred to safer facilities as operations in Gweiran continued, the SDF said.

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

The Kurdish administration has long warned it does not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, all the IS fighters captured in years of operations.

"I think we should not have been surprised, we have been warning about this for quite some time," UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the Security Council Wednesday when asked about the attack.

The administration's foreign policy chief Abdulkarim Omar said it was up to the international community to put foreign jihadists on trial or repatriate them.

The IS threat is "like a fireball, it gets more dangerous and complicated with time," he told AFP on Wednesday.

The self-declared IS caliphate, established in 2014, once straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.

After five years of military operations conducted by local and international forces, its last rump was eventually flushed out on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria in March 2019.

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