A massive and well-planned operation by Islamic State to free thousands of militant group fighters from a prison in northeastern Syria has ended, more than six days after the attack sparked chaos in the facility and surrounding areas.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Wednesday that they had taken full control of the al-Sina prison in Hasaka, a temporary detention facility that housed an estimated 4,000 IS fighters, as well as some 700 to 850 boys. and teenagers from IS families.
SDF spokesman Farhad Shami tweeted, using the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group, “The People’s Hammer Operation has ended with the surrender of our complete control of the Al-Sina prison in al-Hasaka and all Daesh terrorists.”
Prior to the announcement, SDF officials said overnight operations had freed an additional 23 workers from the prison who were held as hostages, and that at least 1,000 prisoners had surrendered or taken back. went.
Shami told the VOA that 250 IS attackers and prisoners were killed, and according to preliminary estimates, thousands of prison inmates were recaptured.
“If the safety of the children was not our prime concern, we could have finished this operation with heavy weapons in one to two days,” he said.
Shami also said that the SDF was probing the fate of the children who were kept in an isolated part of the al-Sina prison facility, admitting that some were likely injured.
SDF officials had already said that IS attackers and prisoners were using children as human shields.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said it had spoken to an Australian boy who was caught in the fighting, adding that he was injured during the SDF’s attempt to retake the prison and that he shot other boys. Killed and killed.
“I was just sitting in my cell and there was an explosion,” he told HRW. “I ran out with my friends and on the way my friends killed a 14 year old, a 15 year old in front of me.”
HRW Associate Director Letta Tyler called on the SDF on Wednesday to provide an update on the children, noting that heavy weapons were used in the operation to retake the prison.
“We deeply share your concerns about the safety and well-being of children [sic],” replied the SDF. “We are doing our best to provide the most accurate information available to the public at the earliest convenience.”
The attack on the al-Sina prison in Hasaka began last Thursday night, when around 200 IS operatives detonated a car bomb and gathered at the facility, according to the SDF.
The attack sparked fierce fighting in and around the prison for days, with the SDF calling in about 10,000 troops for an operation to secure the area.
US and coalition forces also assisted in the effort to conduct air strikes with F-16 jets and Apache attack helicopters. US Bradley Fighting Vehicles were also sent to prison, occasionally firing at IS positions as they helped the SDF secure the perimeter.
A US official, speaking to the VOA on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, said US efforts helped the SDF establish an inner circle and an outer circle around the prison.
“We are still providing support to the SDF to help prevent this threat,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters separately on Tuesday. “We helped them set up a perimeter around the facility.”
At least 30 SDF jawans were martyred in the operation to recapture the prison. Several civilians were also killed, with the SDF blaming IS for their deaths, saying that at least one person was beheaded by IS fighters while trying to reach a residence outside the prison complex.
On Wednesday, SDF officials tried to play down concerns that IS attacks, lasting nearly a week, allowed prisoners to escape.
“The reports that tens or hundreds of ISIS prisoners fled is not true,” Farhad Shami of the SDF, using another acronym for the terrorist group, told the VOA.
“There may have been individual escapes… but there was no mass escape from the prison,” he said.
On Tuesday, a US official told the VOA that initial estimates put the number of escapees in the 10-20 range.
Western counter-terrorism officials and analysts have warned that the attack on al-Sina could be the first in a series of new attacks by IS in Syria and Iraq, believed to have involved more than 10,000 fighters.
“It was clearly part of a more deliberate campaign,” Colin Clark, director of policy and research at global intelligence firm The Soufan Group, told VOA. “It’s not something that was designed overnight.”
“We’re going to see more sophisticated attacks, multi-pronged attacks against vulnerable prisons, until ISIS feels like it’s ready again and restores its organization with the necessary amount of fighters,” he said. done,” he said.
Humanitarian groups are also expressing concern, although many believe IS’s deadly prison break should not come as a surprise.
“I sincerely hope this will serve as a wake-up call, drawing renewed attention to the completely volatile situation,” Dominic Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters on Wednesday. “
“What is happening in the northeast of Syria, with this essentially trapped population – not only 10,000 people living in places of detention, but about 60,000 who are in camps, especially al-Hol – is not a permanent solution. is,” he said. “Obviously, this is also a place that is fertile ground for further radicalization.”
The SDF on Wednesday called on the international community to help repatriate foreign IS fighters in prisons.
“We urgently need new prisons, bigger, safer and away from residential areas,” Farhad Shami of the SDF told the VOA. [in Hasakah] no longer usable… it’s almost an urgent matter now.”
In a statement on Sunday, the US-led coalition said the IS attack “attempted to destroy a new, more secure detention facility in Hasaka” that is being built not far from the current prison” but was unsuccessful. “
On Wednesday, coalition commander Major General John Brennan acknowledged that more work was needed to prevent the threat of a re-emergence from IS.
“This is not just a problem within this city,” Brennan said in a statement. “Temporary prisons across Syria are a breeding ground for the failed ideology of Daesh … It is a global problem that requires many countries to come together to develop a sustainable long-term solution.”
VOA’s Margaret Beshir contributed to this story.