U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces said Tuesday they freed nine of their troops held hostage by Islamic State militants leading an assault on one of the largest detention facilities in northeastern Syria.
After breaking into the prison late Thursday, IS militants were joined by others rioting inside the facility that houses over 3,000 inmates, including hundreds of minors.
They took hostages from among the prison staff and have since been holed up in the northern wing at one end of the facility, known as al-Sinaa or Gweiran prison. The clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have killed dozens from both sides.
The Kurdish-led SDF has been closing in on the northern section of the prison where they estimate that up to 200 militants are holed up. In a statement on the sixth day of the assault, the group said it gained control of more prison cells Tuesday.
The U.S.-led coalition supporting the fight against IS has carried out nearly a dozen strikes on the prison and in adjacent residential areas where the militants have taken cover. A coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said Bradley Fighting Vehicles have been deployed to support the Kurdish-led security operation since Monday.
Kurdish officials say the militants have used minors detained in the facility as human shields, forcing the security forces to delay the assault. Rights and aid groups say children have reportedly been killed and wounded in the clashes.
A 17-year-old Australian sent messages of distress from inside the prison. In a series of messages, he appealed for help and described his surroundings. He said he was injured in the kitchen when the assault began. He said he saw other children killed during shooting he described as non-stop, saying there were no doctors around to help.
“They are not stopping shooting. Every little bit they shoot. Every little bit they hit a missile. I don’t know what to do. Please help me,” the boy said in audio messages Human Rights Watch shared with The Associated Press. The boy said he was injured in the head.
“I have seen a lot of bodies of kids. Eight, 10, 12 years (old). My friends got killed here. I am very scared. I am by myself.”
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said scores of minors were transported in buses overnight out of the facility. But it appears some remain in the custody of the militants taking cover in the northern wing.
Abdurrahman estimated there were 27 hostages from the SDF held by the militants. The SDF had not released an official figure.
In a statement Tuesday, the SDF said more inmates have surrendered, bringing the total number to 550. The Rojava Information Center, a news platform in the Kurdish-run areas in northeast Syria, said the inmates are being transferred to other facilities in the area.
Through loudspeakers, the SDF has called on militants to hand themselves over. Clashes ensued late Monday but calmed down by daytime. The force had cleared out adjacent buildings and carried out raids in nearby residential neighborhoods, where they killed seven militants, Abdurrahman said.
Freeing convicts and imprisoned comrades has been a main tactic of the Islamic State group. During their 2014 surge that overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria, IS carried out multiple prison breaks.
The Kurdish-led forces said they arrested over 100 inmates who escaped. The total number of fugitives remains unclear.
The attack is the biggest by IS militants since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019 following a years-long military campaign backed by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.