Islamic State prisoners escape from Syrian jail after militants riot

Unconfirmed reports of deaths as inmates overwhelm SDF guards in city of Hasakah

Several members of Islamic State escaped from prison after militants provoked a riot and seized control of part of a large jail in north-east Syria, Kurdish and US military sources have said.

Prisoners made holes in the walls between cells and tore off internal doors during the unrest on Sunday night and Monday at Ghouiran prison in the city of Hasakah, overwhelming guards from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s Kurdish-led ground partner in the fight against Isis.

Inmates seized the ground floor and entered the prison courtyard, from where at least four men are believed to have left the facility. Local news said the four were later picked up by the police.

Gunfire was heard coming from the building into Monday evening, with ambulances taking away wounded SDF troops and inmates. Unconfirmed reports said several people had died in the violence.

In security camera footage broadcast by the Kurdish news agency ANF, men in orange jumpsuits in a crowded room held a banner up to the camera demanding their human rights be respected. It was not immediately clear whether the riot was linked to fears over a potential coronavirus outbreak.

Aircraft from the US-led coalition against Isis assisted in surveillance overnight and into Monday, according to the operation’s military spokesperson, Col Myles Caggins III.

The situation remains tense, with prisoners still in control of some sections of the complex despite reinforcements in the form of an SDF counter-terrorism unit.

Ivan Hassib, a local journalist, posted a video from outside the former school complex of dozens of SDF soldiers stationed outside the perimeter and on the roof of the large facility before the lunchtime raid to quell the uprising began.

A statement from the SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel later on Monday said no prisoners had escaped but did not clarify whether that meant missing inmates had been captured.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said its local networks reported four men had escaped. Syrian state media put the number at 12.

While Kino said the situation in the detention centre was “completely under control”, the fighting appeared to be ongoing.

The Rojava Information Centre, a research group based in north-east Syria, said Ghourian prison held 3,000-5,000 people, many of whom were foreign nationals suspected of travelling to Syria to join the now-defunct “caliphate”. Only “low-level” prisoners were housed at the facility, Caggins added.

Isis lost control of its last territory in Syria a year ago after a five-year ground and air campaign by the US-led coalition. The SDF says it is still holding about 12,000 fighters in overcrowded prisons across its territory in north-east Syria, along with about 100,000 women and children in squalid detention camps.

Up to 2,000 male prisoners are foreigners from almost 50 countries. An estimated 60 British children are still in the area.

In October last year, Turkey followed through on a longstanding threat to attack the Kurdish-led forces on its southern border, which Ankara views as terrorists. In the ensuing chaos, 249 women and 700 children with links to Isis walked out of a secure annex at Ain Issa camp when guards abandoned their posts after Turkish shelling.

The Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on the international community to repatriate citizens, warning they do not have the resources to house Isis suspects indefinitely. Years of stonewalling from western governments, however, has led them to suggest foreign nationals could be tried in the Kurdish administration’s courts.

Human Rights Watch and other groups say many inmates in male prisons are children or were arrested on flimsy charges, echoing similar concerns over the processing of Isis suspects over the border in Iraq.


Bethan McKernan Middle East Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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