U.S.-backed Syrian forces capture prison from Islamic State after a week

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BEIRUT —
U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces said they wrestled control of the last section of a prison controlled by Islamic State militants, ending a weeklong assault by the extremists on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria.

The attack was the biggest by IS militants since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019. In the week of clashes, dozens from both sides have been killed, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out nearly a dozen airstrikes and thousands of civilians living nearby have been displaced.

“The whole prison is now under control,” said Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Shami said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered. It was not clear how many of them were minors.

The militants had used child detainees as human shields slowing down the effort to retake the facility located in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, Kurdish officials said.

After breaking into the prison late Thursday, IS militants were joined by others rioting inside the facility. Around 200 armed militants were believed to be holed up in the northern wing at one end of the prison complex, holding hostages from among the prison staff.

The complex, known as al-Sinaa or Gweiran prison, houses more than 3,000 inmates, including around 600 minors. Children have reportedly been killed and wounded in clashes, rights and aid groups say.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 124 IS militants, 50 fighters with the Kurdish-led forces and seven civilians were killed in the weeklong attack that extended outside the walls of the prison into residential areas. Thousands of civilians have been displaced.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said earlier Wednesday it had freed 23 of its servicemen held hostage by IS militants. Later it said inmates continued to surrender.

The SDF, backed by U.S.-led coalition Bradley Fighting Vehicles and air support, had been closing in on the prison wing controlled by the armed militants. Fighters from the SDF and other security teams took control of adjacent buildings and used loudspeakers to call on the militants to surrender.

The Islamic State group’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria was crushed by a years-long U.S.-backed campaign, but some fighters remained at large in sleeper cells that have increasingly killed scores of Iraqis and Syrians in past months. Prison riots have been common, where thousands of suspected IS militants have been held. But the attack launched late Thursday was the boldest and most ambitious.

Sleeper cells from outside the prison, nearly 100, attacked the facility after dark, ramming vehicles against its walls and detonating car bombs to create a diversion. They were joined by rioting inmates, and some managed to escape.

The SDF said the total number of fugitives remained unclear.

A recording obtained from inside the prison by a teenaged detainee described a violent onslaught that has left multiple children killed and many wounded inside the facility. Shami said at one point the IS militants had seized control of the hospital inside the prison. The teenage boy who was injured in the head said medical assistance was not available.

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