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Teenage inmates found among the 500 dead in Syria prison attack

On Sunday, his body and that of another youth were found lying on a dirt road behind the prison in northeastern Syria where a Kurdish-led force, backed by the US military, fought for more than a week to put down an attempt by Islamic State group militants to free former fighters held there.

The discovery of the bodies was the first confirmation that at least two of up to 700 teenage boys, who had been detained in the prison because they were the children of Islamic State group fighters, were killed in the fighting.

The leader the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which ran the prison, acknowledged Monday that “a very small number” of the boys had been killed.

“Some escaped with the adults,” the commander, known by his nom de guerre Mazlum Kobani, said in an interview, his first since the siege began. “They were either rearrested or were killed.”

Some had been held as hostages during the prison siege, according to the SDF.

A fuller accounting of the Islamic State group prison siege, and the efforts by the Kurdish-led militia and American forces to put it down, emerged Monday, a day after the SDF regained full control over the Sinaa prison in the city of Hassakeh.

About 500 people were killed, 374 of them linked to the Islamic State group, the SDF said. The death toll also included about 40 SDF fighters, 77 prison staff and guards, and four civilians.

The group also said that the Islamic State group fighters who assaulted the prison had used sleeper cells to aid in the attack, and that the prison assault was part of a larger plot to also attack the giant detention camps in the same region that hold tens of thousands of people, most of them wives and children of Islamic State group fighters, and the city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate.

The boys had been held at the prison in Hassakeh for three years as the international community debated what to do with them.

The SDF has said that their ties to the Islamic State group made them dangerous, and some of the older ones may have been trained to fight, while human rights organisations consider them victims, children brought to the Islamic State group through no choice of their own.

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Both groups have clamoured for the boys’ home countries to repatriate them.

Kobani, the SDF commander, said he had been asking the international community for three years to build rehabilitation centres in his impoverished region. Without better facilities or unless their countries taking them back, he said, there was no where else but the prison to put them.

The bodies of the two boys seen by The New York Times on Sunday lay on a dirt road along with the remains of four other corpses, all of them dismembered. All appeared to have been shot.

One of them still wore socks made from gray blankets used at the prison. Fragments of orange prison uniforms were strewn nearby.

Some of the neighbourhood boys kicked the corpses as they passed by, in a display of the deep hatred that many residents of this area harbour toward the Islamic State group.

Neighbourhood residents said the boys were among a group of escaped inmates, most of them Iraqi, who were killed Friday by the SDF as its troops went door to door to hunt down Islamic State group fighters.

“Poor kids, they turned them into soldiers,” said a neighbour who did not give her name out of fear for her safety. “We wish they would take them away.”

It was not clear whether the boys had sought to escape with the Islamic State group fighters or were still being held hostage by them. Several residents said they did not see the boys or the escaped inmates alive and did not know whether any had been armed.

Kobani said all of the boys were trained Islamic State group fighters, an assertion disputed by human rights groups. And he said the boys ranged in age from 15 to 17. Human rights workers have said the boys were as young as 12.

He also appeared to be shocked about a Times report on Sunday that at least 80 bodies were dumped from a front-end loader onto the street and then shovelled into a gravel truck to be taken away to a mass grave.

“This is my first time hearing about it,” Kobani said. “If this happened, it is a sin.”

The American-led military coalition in northeast Syria, asked about the dead boys and the bodies being dumped, called both “an unfortunate reality” in war.

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“The SDF employed the appropriate amount of lethal force to counter the attack and quell the detainee uprising,” the coalition said in a statement. “Time and again they tried to negotiate a full surrender, and used the necessary force to respond to hostile actions.”

“Although the images The New York Times witnessed are disturbing,” the statement added, “they are an unfortunate reality in armed conflict where there are significant casualties and measures must be taken to limit the spread of disease.”

The streets around the prison were littered with the rubble of homes destroyed by security forces who used armoured bulldozers and fighting vehicles to kill Islamic State group fighters and escaped prisoners who refused to surrender. Residents said they saw armoured vehicles flying American flags taking part in the operations.

The prison attack drew in US forces and turned into the biggest battle between the American military and the Islamic State group in the three years since the group lost the last remnant of its so-called caliphate, a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq. The United States conducted airstrikes and provided intelligence and ground troops in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to support the SDF efforts.

Abu Jassim, another resident who lived in the neighbourhood behind the prison, said he returned to his house Friday and found four escaped inmates there wearing their prison uniforms.

“They said, ‘Come in and sit down. Do you know us?’” he recounted. “I said, ‘You are the Islamic State.’ They said, ‘Sit down and don’t interfere.’”

Two of the escaped prisoners were from Iraq while another was from Chechnya, Abu Jassim said. They told him not to be afraid and that they would leave when it got dark. He persuaded them to let him leave the house.

He reported their presence to the SDF, which arrived soon after with bulldozers.

“They started to hit the walls until the house fell down,” he said.

Their four bodies were those later seen on the street near those of the two boys.

The SDF said that based on seized Islamic State group documents and the confessions of captured group leaders, it had determined that the prison attack was part of a much larger plan. If it had succeeded, the SDF said, the group would have attacked surrounding neighbourhoods, Raqqa, and the sprawling al-Hol detention camp that holds an estimated 60,000 family members of Islamic State group fighters.

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Al-Hol, about 40 miles from Hassakeh, is the main detention camp set up to house the families of Islamic State group fighters detained after the fall of the caliphate three years ago.

SDF factions secure both the exterior and inside of the camp but do not have enough guards to be able to combat increasing Islamic State group activity there, including frequent murders. Kobani said he has asked for more US and coalition support to secure al-Hol and other detention camps and prisons.

Both the camp and the prison lie in an isolated and impoverished breakaway region in northeastern Syria. The SDF has struggled to maintain control over both and has long warned that it cannot safely guard them.

Among the camp residents are several thousand foreign women and children whose home countries have refused to allow them to come back. They live in unsanitary conditions and children have died there of malnutrition and lack of medical care.

One resident living near the prison, a Syrian government employee named Hassoun, said that groups of armed Islamic State group fighters had forced their way into his home Friday morning and again that night.

Hassoun, who asked to be identified by his first name only out of fear for his safety, said the gunmen took his phone, flipping through it to see if he was a member of the security forces. All of the militants were Iraqi, he said.

“They were complaining about the internet — they said ‘the Syrian internet is slow,’” Hassoun said.

At one point, he said, one of the gunmen opened the door to check the street and said, “There is an infidel dead.”

It was one of Hassoun’s neighbours, shot by Islamic State group fighters after they found a photo of him in an SDF uniform during compulsory military service. Relatives identified him as Ghassan Awaf al-Anezi, 20.

“It was horrifying,” Hassoun said. “I was just praying for the sun to rise.”

©2022 The New York Times Company

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