Clashes between US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants continued for a fourth day Sunday near a prison in northeastern Syria that houses thousands of members of the terrorist group, the Kurdish force said.
The standoff follows a bold assault by the extremists that breached the premises of Gweiran Prison, allowed an unknown number of militants to escape and killed dozens of US-backed fighters who guard the facility.
The Kurdish-led forces, with assistance from the US-led coalition in the form of surveillance, intelligence and airstrikes, have contained the threat, the coalition said in a statement Sunday.
Several dozen militants remain holed up in one wing of the prison, to the north and in adjacent buildings, from where they have been firing at the Kurdish forces.
A spokesman for the Kurdish forces, Farhad Shami, said the militants have used hundreds of minors held in the same facility as human shields, preventing a final assault.
More than 3,000 suspected ISIS militants are believed to be held in Gweiran, the largest facility in Syria housing ISIS militants, including over 600 under the age of 18.
“While it is militarily defeated, ISIS remains an existential threat to the region," said Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan. “Due to its severely degraded capability, ISIS’ future survival is dependent on its ability to refill its ranks through poorly-conceived attempts” like the Gweiran prison attack.
The coalition said it was analyzing the situation to determine if the group is still planning other such attacks in Syria and Iraq.
In their attack, the ISIS militants had attempted to destroy a new, more secure facility under construction next to the Gweiran prison, and have seized arms from prison guards before murdering them, the coalition added.
The Kurdish forces said militants on Sunday staged a new attack on the prison, also known as al-Sinaa prison, in an attempt to break the security cordon and support inmates still in control of parts of the prison.
In a statement, the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the attack on the northern section of the prison in the city of Hasakeh was repelled and the militants were chased into a nearby residential area.
Another SDF spokesman Siamand Ali said ISIS fighters arriving from outside the city also tried to attack the prison and were repelled.
A resident near the prison said warplanes from the US-led coalition flew over the prison earlier Sunday, breaking the sound barrier. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the US-backed Kurdish forces were heard calling on ISIS militants in the prison and in surrounding buildings to turn themselves in. A war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said helicopters threw fliers over the city, urging residents to report suspicious activities.
The Observatory said the fighting has killed at least 136 people, including civilians.
The militants have taken cover in residential areas surrounding the prison, including in Zuhour neighborhood which was cordoned off by security forces. Hundreds of civilians fled the area for safety. Ali said between 150 and 200 militants are believed currently holed up in the northern wing of the prison and adjacent residential area.
The attack launched Thursday was the biggest by ISIS militants since the fall of the group’s military defeat in 2019. Its demise came after ISIS lost its last territory in Syria in following a years-long military campaign backed by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.
The ISIS group claimed responsibility for the prison break on its Aamaq news service Friday, describing it as ongoing.
In an ambitious attack, more than 100 militants armed with heavy machine guns and vehicles rigged with explosives attacked the facility aiming to free their comrades. A car bomb was detonated nearby at a petroleum warehouse, creating a diversion and leaving fire and smoke in the air for two days.
A video posted by the militants late Saturday showed vehicles ramming through what appears to be the walls of the prison, creating large holes. Dozens of men were seen walking in the facility in the dark, seemingly escaping the prison. The Kurdish-led forces said Friday they have so far arrested over 100 inmates who escaped but the total number of fugitives remains unclear.
Freeing convicts and imprisoned comrades has been a main tactic of the group. During their 2014 surge that overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS carried out multiple prison breaks.
In another video posted on the ISIS news service, the militants showed two dozen prison staff, some in military uniforms, taken hostage, including some who appeared bruised and beaten. One militant read out a statement to the camera and another stood guard with what seemed to be either a saw or a machete. Both militants were masked.
The Kurdish forces said late Saturday the men were probably among the prison kitchen staff with whom they lost contact since the assault began late Thursday.
Ali said about 100 militants attacked the prison but it is not clear how many militants from sleeper cells and fugitives are taking part in the ongoing operation.
In its version of the attack, ISIS quoted one of its militants in a statement posted late Saturday on its news service who said the attack began with two foreign suicide bombers who detonated two trucks at the gate of the prison and along its walls, causing major damage and casualties. Then militants fanned out, first heading to the prison towers and the petroleum warehouse. A second group attacked a Kurdish post nearby while two other groups clashed with nearby patrols and cut supply lines to undermine the prison defenses.
The assault coincided with riots inside the prison, where militants seized weapons and held guards and prison staff hostage, the militant group said, claiming that it freed more than 800 militants, some of whom are taking part in the ongoing operation.