As U.S. Strikes Syria Prison Held by ISIS, Young Detainees Are Caught in Crossfire

BAGHDAD – A US-backed militia that fought four days of deadly fighting to root out Islamic State fighters besieging a prison in northeastern Syria warned on Sunday that jihadists were using more than 600 detained boys in the complex as “human shields”.

The United States sent attack helicopters and carried out airstrikes on the prison to help the Kurdish-led militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, regain control. Some of the prisoners were killed in the strikes, US officials said.

US officials have defended the attacks.

“The coalition took great steps to ensure the humane treatment of detainees, but when ISIS detainees took up arms, they became an active threat, and were then engaged and killed by SDF airstrikes. and the coalition,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., commander of the anti-Isis coalition in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces is a US partner in the autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria.

The coalition said in a statement that it had launched airstrikes and provided intelligence to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which it said had “conducted sustained operations” since jihadists attacked the prison on Thursday evening in an attempt to release the ISIS operatives held there. He said the prisoners used the prison guards’ own weapons to kill some of them after the siege began.

The coalition called the current threat “contained”.

In an attempt to quell the uprising, a US military official said, Apache gunships launched airstrikes and flew low in a show of force.

The siege of Ghweran prison in Hasaka, where thousands of jihadists and their family members were held after the collapse of the so-called Islamic State caliphate, was well planned.

Syrian Democratic Forces Commander Mazlum Kobani said ISIS had mobilized sleeper cells and used suicide bombers to stage the breakout.

The fight to retake the prison, the SDF said, has been limited by activists’ use of detained youths as human shields. He said the children were in a special rehabilitation section inside the detention center, which was built as a training college.

“The Syrian Democratic Forces hold the Islamic State terrorists responsible for harming these children in prison,” the militia said in a statement.

While the Islamic State trained boys in combat, dubbing them the “cubs of the caliphate”, it is unclear how many of the detained boys had been fighters and how many were in detention simply because they were deemed too old to be in the army. camps for IS families. .

The Rojava Information Center, run by pro-Syrian Kurdish activists, said on Sunday that if the SDF and Kurdish-led intelligence forces continue to tighten the security cordon around the still-held prison wing by the Islamic State, they had not yet succeeded. to regain control.

He said 650 of the detainees were under the age of 18. The children are mostly Syrians, but also include Iraqis and around 150 non-Arab foreigners.

Many children were brought to Syria by their parents to live in the caliphate declared by militants in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Three years ago, with the fall of ISIS’s last stronghold in Baghuz, Syria, scores of children were separated by US-backed security forces from all surviving parents and taken into custody. . Others were sent to jail when they were deemed too old to stay in detention camps for the families of IS fighters.

Letta Tayler, associate director of the crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch, said she heard voicemails from a terrified teenage girl talking about seeing bodies and appearing to be in the kitchen area of ​​the prison. taken by the Islamic State.

“He was saying, ‘There are a lot of dead people ahead of me… I’m afraid I’ll die at any moment… I don’t know what to do. Please help me,” she said.

Ms Tayler said the boy, an outsider, reported the prison “being hit from all sides”.

Last May, a United Nations human rights report said the conditions in which children were held in northeast Syria reached the threshold of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment under the international law. He described overcrowded conditions, lack of access to sunlight, malnutrition and untreated injuries.

Ms Tayler said the current crisis could have been avoided if the children’s countries of origin had agreed to repatriate them.

“Detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort,” she said. said on Twitter. “Instead, foreign countries have blamed these children on the Syrian authorities in the northeast. If anything happens to these boys in this assault in prison, the boys’ countries of origin will have children’s blood on their hands.

A propaganda video released by the Islamic State on Sunday showed more than a dozen men identified by the SDF as kitchen workers being held captive by masked Islamic State gunmen.

In Iraq, which also holds its own Islamic State detainees and is still battling a lingering jihadist presence, the government has tightened security in its prisons.

The coalition said it was confident Hasaka’s attack would not pose a significant threat to Iraq or the region, but was still assessing whether Islamic State was planning further attacks on detention centers in Iraq and Syria.

More than 10,000 foreigners, mostly women and children from families of Islamic State fighters, have been held in squalid and increasingly dangerous detention camps in northeastern Syria since the fall of Baghuz in 2019.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut and Eric Schmitt from Washington.