Fighting raged in Syria for a fourth day yesterday between US-backed Kurdish forces and Islamic State group militants who have attacked a prison, killing 136 people including civilians, a war monitor said.
More than 100 insurgents late Thursday attacked the Kurdish-run Ghwayran jail in Hasakeh city to free fellow militants, in the most significant IS operation since its self-declared caliphate was defeated in Syria nearly three years ago.
Intense fighting since then has seen the militants free detainees and seize weapons stored at the jail, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in what experts see as a bold IS attempt to regroup.
“At least 84 IS members and 45 Kurdish fighters, including internal security forces, prison guards and counter-terrorism forces, have been killed” inside and outside the prison since the start of the attack, the Observatory said.
Seven civilians have also died in the fighting in the city, the largest in northeastern Syria and controlled by a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration, it added.
The battles continued yesterday as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US-led coalition strikes, closed in on militant targets inside and outside the facility.
The SDF said in a statement its forces sealed off the area around the jail and that “IS fighters located within the gates of the prison can no longer escape”. According to the Observatory, the SDF have secured most of the area and much of the facility itself with the exception of some cell blocks where holdout militants have yet to surrender.
An AFP correspondent in the city’s Ghwayran neighbourhood reported the sound of heavy shelling in areas immediately surrounding the jail, which houses at least 3,500 suspected IS members.
The SDF deployed heavily in areas around the prison where they carried out combing operations and used loudspeakers to call on holdout militants to surrender, the correspondent said.
IS fighters “are entering homes and killing people,” said a civilian in his thirties who was fleeing on foot. “It was a miracle that we made it out,” he said, carrying an infant wrapped in a wool blanket.
“The situation is still very bad. After four days, violent clashes are still ongoing.”
Hamsha Sweidan, 80, who had been trapped in her neighbourhood near the jail, said civilians were left without bread or water as the battle raged.
“We have been dying of hunger and of thirst,” she said as she crossed into SDF-held areas in Hasakeh city. “Now, we don’t know where to go.”
IS has carried out regular attacks against Kurdish and government targets in Syria since the rump of its once-sprawling proto-state was overrun in March 2019.
Most of their guerrilla attacks have been against military targets and oil installations in remote areas, but the Hasakeh prison break could mark a new phase in the group’s resurgence.
In a statement, the US-led military coalition said the prison attack will nonetheless leave IS weaker since many militants involved in the fighting have been killed. “The Coalition is confident in its assessment that the recent Daesh escape attempt will not pose a significant threat,” it said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Syrians flee their homes in the Ghwayran neighbourhood in the northern city of Hasakeh, yesterday, on the fourth day of fighting between the Kurdish forces and Islamic State (IS) group fighters.