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Kurdish-led forces put down revolt by ISIS detainees at prison in Syria

In this October photo, a 14-year-old peeks out of a cell holding men and boys accused of being Islamic State militants at a crowded prison controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Hasakah, Syria. (Alice Martins/for The Washington Post)
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BEIRUT — Kurdish-led forces on Monday put down a revolt at a prison in northeast Syria for former Islamic State fighters after militants complaining about their conditions seized control of parts of the facility.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said the riot was quelled by Monday night, more than 24 hours after prisoners inside smashed doors, broke down walls and took over at least one wing of the prison.

“Due to great efforts made by our forces & swift intervention against the insubordination of ISIS detainees inside one prison, we were able to avoid catastrophe & take control. No prisoners escaped,” the SDF commander, Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, said on his Twitter account.

The prison revolt was the most serious yet by the thousands of former Islamic State fighters detained in prisons in the area, typically in cramped, overcrowded conditions that have drawn criticism from human rights groups.

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The uprising coincided with mounting fears across northeast Syria that the coronavirus will arrive in the war-ravaged area, with potentially devastating consequences in the crowded prisons. U.S. officials say about 10,000 foreign fighters from dozens of nations and family members are being held in detention centers and camps there, along with tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis.

Kurdish officials have long warned that they lack the resources to indefinitely detain such a large number of people and have urged governments around the world to repatriate their nationals who volunteered to join the Islamic State. Most countries have refused to do so, fearing that the former fighters would pose a security threat after they returned.

The SDF’s Mazloum — who goes by a nom de guerre — said the unrest demonstrated the need for the international community to help resolve the burden on the Kurdish authorities left to manage the captured fighters. “Our allies must find a quick radical solution to this international problem,” he tweeted.

The revolt began Sunday night at a prison in the city of Hasakah that houses about 5,000 Islamic State fighters of multiple nationalities who were captured after the group’s final stand in the village of Baghouz, Kurdish officials and local journalists said.

“ISIS terrorists managed to take over the first floor in Hasakah prison,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali wrote on his Twitter account. “Some of them managed to escape and our forces are searching to capture them.” SDF officials later said that all the prisoners were accounted for.

Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the international coalition, said the U.S.-led force provided the SDF with aerial surveillance to look for escapees and to monitor for any signs that might indicate a “larger conspiracy.”

Video footage posted by a journalist at the scene Monday morning showed members of the SDF creeping around the outside of the prison wall, suggesting that they still had not brought the facility under control. The prisoners seized control of a section of the prison after they disabled surveillance cameras, broke down metal doors and then used them to smash down walls between the prison cells. “The mutiny is still ongoing,” the journalist said.

Surveillance video footage from inside the prison on Sunday night showed prisoners in orange uniforms tightly crammed together in one of the cells and holding up a sign appealing for intervention by international humanitarian and coalition forces to alleviate their conditions.

Previous footage from the prison cells, seen by Washington Post reporters during a visit last year, showed men packed together so tightly that they tripped over one another as they tried to move across the rooms. Some sat in small, tight circles, deep in conversation. Others lay staring into space, and several could be seen clawing at their own faces.

Loveluck reported from London. Asser Khattab in Paris contributed to this report.

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