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Kurdish-led forces repel Islamic State prison assault; dozens of casualties

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces check on civilians who fled their houses after clashes with Islamic state group fighters outside the Ghwaryan prison in the Kurdish-controlled city of Hasakah, Syria, on Jan. 21, 2022. (Ahmed Mardnli/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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BEIRUT — The extremist Islamic State group staged a brazen assault on a prison in northeastern Syria, provoking intense clashes with the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces and causing dozens of casualties on Friday.

The attack on Ghwaryan prison in the Kurdish-controlled city of Hasakah is one of the most serious Islamic State operations in years and started Thursday night with a revolt by inmates and the detonation of a car bomb near the jail by Islamic State fighters. Fighting then spread into the town and continued throughout Friday.

Farhad Shami, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ media center, said that seven of the force’s fighters were killed in the clashes, and that another 15 had been wounded, while 23 Islamic State fighters were killed.

“Now there are clashes taking place in the neighborhoods near the prison, and Daesh is hiding behind civilians and using them as human shields,” Mervan Qamishlo, an SDF spokesman, said earlier in the day, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Fighting continued into the evening Friday.

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Almost three years after the Islamic State lost its final strip of territory in Syria, some 10,000 alleged members of the group remain in pretrial detention across the country’s northeast, which is ruled by a U.S.-backed Kurdish administration. Cells are overcrowded, access to health care is limited, and there are hundreds of children among the imprisoned.

The region’s leaders routinely appeal for help from the international community, pointing out that many of the detainees are foreign, and that the local administration cannot bear the burden alone.

Although the British government helped expand the prison in Hasakah last year, Syrian and coalition officials have repeatedly warned that it remains poorly defended and vulnerable to attack.

On Thursday night, inmates aided the prison break by burning plastic materials and blankets, but it was unclear whether they had prior warning of the attack or responded spontaneously to the chaos outside. The SDF said in a statement that 89 prisoners had been recaptured after their escape.

The U.S.-led coalition provided air support to the ground operations, it said in its own statement, without providing further details.

Syria’s state news agency reported electricity blackouts in the center of Hasakah and surrounding neighborhoods, quoting the head of the electricity company in the city who said the clashes had damaged power lines in the area.

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The Islamic State was defeated in 2019 by local forces from Syria and Iraq, backed by a global U.S.-led coalition. At the height of its power, it controlled an area the size of Britain and commanded as many as 100,000 men.

Since its defeat, sleeper cells in Syria’s northeast and east provinces have conducted attacks on armed groups, including the Syrian army and the SDF.

They also remain active in Iraq, where the army said Friday that at least 11 soldiers were killed by militants in the central Diyala province overnight. In photographs provided by a member of their company, the base where an apparent Islamic State ambush had taken place appeared deserted. One image showed blood stains on the ground.

There were no indications that Thursday’s attacks in Syria and Iraq were linked, though two attacks of such magnitude suggest the group remains a substantial threat in each country. According to coalition officials, sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria operate as self-contained units and with little coordination.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi used his Twitter account to describe the attack as a “terrorist” crime that would not pass without “decisive punishment.”

Although the Islamic State was officially defeated more than four years ago in Iraq, security forces have struggled to prevent the remaining militants from exploiting security gaps across their territory and the country’s government has yet to address many of the social, economic and political grievances that led to the group’s rise in the first place.

In recent operations against the militants, members of the Iraqi security forces said fighters captured or killed were often in their late teens, suggesting that they were either recent recruits or children from families who have long sympathized with the group.

Loveluck reported from Irbil, Iraq. Ellen Francis in London contributed to this report.

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