US allies retake control of prison in Syria, subduing Islamic State fighters

“We announce the end of the sweep
campaign in al-Sinaa Prison in Ghweran neighbourhood in Hasaka and the end of
the last pockets in which ISIS mercenaries were holed up,” the Syrian
Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia, said in a statement, using an alternative
name for the Islamic State group.

The US Special Operations Joint Task
Force said the militia had cleared the prison of “active enemy fighters” and
was conducting recovery operations to make sure the area was fully safe. It
said detainees were transferred to a more secure site.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, US
partners in the fight against the Islamic State, did not say whether the last
remaining gunmen in the prison had surrendered since Saturday or whether they
had been killed. SDF officials said Saturday that the gunmen were believed to
be holding teenage detainees hostage.

Fighting in the past week has spilled
into the residential areas of Hasaka near the prison.

New York Times journalists saw several
dozen bodies, some dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, being carted away over
the weekend by Kurdish militiamen near the prison, an indication of the scale
of fighting in recent days.

On Sunday clearing operations continued
in the Ghweran neighbourhood around the prison to find Islamic State sleeper
cells. The day before, Kurdish-led counterterrorism forces backed by US Special
Operations troops went house to house in the narrow alleys of the neighbourhood
in the majority-Arab city.

Kurdish forces threw flash grenades into
homes where they believed Islamic State fighters were hiding as residents
gathered in the streets.

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The latest round of fighting began this
month after an attack by the Islamic State group on the prison, which housed
more than 3,000 Islamic State members and almost 700 minors.

On Saturday, the SDF said that about 30
Islamic State fighters surrendered overnight but that the remaining militants
in the prison were believed to be holding teenage detainees as human shields.

“We think there are cubs of the
caliphate with them,” Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesperson, said in reference to
the children forced by the Islamic State to become fighters.

The Kurdish militia has released
conflicting information about the siege. On Wednesday it declared it had
regained control of the prison after the US launched airstrikes and sent in
armoured fighting vehicles to help retake it. On Thursday, it was clear that
fighting with gunmen barricaded in prison buildings was continuing.

By Saturday, there were increasing signs
that the battle was much fiercer than had initially been reported.

On the edge of the Ghweran
neighbourhood, journalists for The New York Times saw what appeared to be at
least 80 bodies being transported in a small truck from the direction of the
prison and being dumped in a pile on the road. Kurdish fighters heaved them one
by one into the shovel of a yellow front-end loader, which moved them into a
40-foot gravel truck to be taken away for burial.

While some bodies were in prison
jumpsuits, others were dressed in civilian clothing, as is also common among
those held at the site. Almost all the corpses were intact and unbloodied, many
of their faces and bodies black with soot.

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A distraught fighter shouted at a Times
photographer not to take photos.

“We know this is not right, but there
are so many of them,” he said.

Hasaka, in the breakaway Kurdish-led
region of Rojava, is surrounded by hostile Syrian forces and Turkish-backed
troops who occupy northwestern Syria.

The region has been struggling with
existential security threats, a lack of infrastructure and near financial
collapse. Foreign countries have refused to repatriate Islamic State fighters
and their families, leaving Rojava to become a haven for the remnants of the
self-declared Islamic State caliphate, including thousands of accused fighters
and tens of thousands of their family members.

The local administration in Rojava has
long warned that it does not have the resources or the ability to run secure
prisons and detention camps.

The US maintains about 700 troops in
Rojava as part of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. But until the
prison siege the American forces for the most part conducted relatively routine
missions that avoided the Russian military presence in the same area.

The SDF said Saturday that 13 of its
fighters had been killed retaking the prison and securing the area, although
that figure is probably higher. It has not released figures for the numbers of
inmates killed in the fighting.

An official with the US-led coalition,
who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak
publicly, said it would take time to determine how many Islamic State fighters
had been killed.

SDF officials have said prison inmates
who were younger than 18 have been transferred to a new location. The minors
were brought to Syria as young children with their parents.

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An official with the YPG, the main
Kurdish faction, said most of the Islamic State fighters who were still
barricaded in the prison surrendered Friday night after the Kurdish-led forces
stormed the building.

“They told us they were surrendering,
and then they came out one by one and put their guns on the ground,” said
Siyamend Ali, the YPG media director. He said some laid down suicide belts.

Hasaka has been under lockdown since the
prison break Jan. 20. Shops are shuttered, and makeshift shelters house
families displaced by the fighting. In some areas there has been no electricity
or running water for more than a week.

In the Ghweran neighbourhood Saturday, a
group of men and boys stood in an alley down the street from US and Kurdish
armoured vehicles.

“It is an unbelievably bad situation,”
said a labourer who would be identified only by his first name, Mohammad,
because he feared speaking about the Islamic State group. “The neighbourhood
has not been cleared properly yet, and ISIS is using the rooftops to jump from
one house to another.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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