In Hassaké prison, IS’s fierce resistance to the Kurds

Sporadic fighting continued to oppose, on Friday January 28, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, predominantly Kurdish) to the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) organization entrenched in Ghwayran prison and its surroundings in Hassaké, in the north- east of Syria. The announcement made by the FDS, the day before, of the resumption of the detention center, after clashes which left more than 235 dead, was premature.

Several dozen jihadists were located in the north wing of the prison during search operations. An unknown number of fighters are also holed up in adjacent neighborhoods. For a week, they have been putting up fierce resistance to the Kurdish forces, despite the support that the latter have received from American units of the international anti-IS coalition.

IS launched the assault on Ghwayran on January 20, aiming to replenish its ranks after the fall of its self-proclaimed caliphate in 2019. The prison, the largest under Kurdish control, had long been a target, due to overcrowding and notoriously weak security. The old school, converted into a penitentiary, housed around 5,000 detainees, according to an estimate by the anti-IS coalition, in February 2021: Syrian and foreign jihadists, including commanders of the group, as well as 700 minors.

Read also In Syria, teenagers trapped in a prison after a jihadist attack

According to our information, there was no French national among the detainees. The jihadist men of French nationality arrested by the Kurds in recent years – between 50 and 100 according to estimates – were transferred some time ago discreetly to another place of detention, better protected.

“Many dead children”

The assailants – nearly 200, according to the FDS – managed to open a breach in the prison walls using two car bombs. Inside, at the same time, detainees mutinied and helped themselves in an armory, before joining up with the attackers. Prisoners managed to escape and entrenched themselves in adjacent quarters, aided by sleeper cells. The exchange of fire led to the flight, in freezing weather, of more than 45,000 inhabitants of Hassaké, according to the UN. The American forces, which have 700 men in a nearby base, carried out air strikes and deployed armor to support the Kurdish forces.

On Tuesday, the SDF cut off jihadist detainees’ access to water and food, hoping to force them to surrender. The latter had taken refuge in one of the buildings of the complex, taking hostage guards and the 700 minors installed in this wing. Among these children aged 12 to 17 were a majority of Syrians and Iraqis, and a hundred other nationalities according to the FDS, for some extracts from the camps where they had lived until then with their families. “None of them has been convicted of a crime under national or international law. These children should never have been held in military detention in the first place. The violence to which they were subjected amounts to war crimes”denounced Unicef, in a press release, fearing that they would be “wounded or forcibly recruited”.

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