Western-backed troops helped by British and American special forces stormed the jail in northeast Syria last night where thousands of Islamic State prisoners had been holding hostages for almost a week after seizing control of the facility.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said many of the inmates had surrendered midway through the afternoon. Streams of men were seen lined up outside the prison buildings as SDF fighters went through the cells searching for booby-traps.
Farhad Shami, the SDF spokesman, said its troops were now in “complete control”. He tweeted: “The final dance of the venom snakes — Game Over Daesh”, adding a picture of three women SDF fighters overseeing the surrender of Isis inmates.
Earlier, teenage boys held in a separate wing of Gweiran prison, in the city of Hasakah, had issued pitiful appeals for help. Caught between the attacking SDF troops and the Isis inmates, with Apache helicopters firing into the jail from above, they described seeing their friends shot dead in front of them.
“We’re starving. We’re thirsty. There’s no food, there’s no water, there’s no medical supplies at all,” an American, 18, told a human rights worker. “We’re scared. We just need someone to help us get out of here, to help get us to safety.”
A 17-year-old Australian said he had seen friends killed as he tried to escape. He himself suffered a head injury. “I was just sitting in my cell and an explosion happened,” he said. “I ran out because there was shooting at our building. I ran out with my friends and on the way my friends got killed in front of me, a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old.”
It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the battle how many of the estimated 650 boys held in the wing had been killed in the fighting. Some were so-called “cubs of the caliphate” — children who had been trained to fight by Isis — but most were brought to Syria as children by jihadist parents and then rounded up with their mothers when the “caliphate” fell. Isis was feared to have been using some of the boys in the jail as “human shields”.
It was also unclear last night whether all 3,500 inmates were now in custody. The SDF said earlier that 1,000 had surrendered as the battle got under way. It denied reports of mass escapes, although it is believed that several dozen fled.
The area was tightly sealed off during the final operation but the SDF released photographs showing lines of weary inmates being led across the prison courtyard, some still in their orange jumpsuits, others in civilian clothing. There were blast marks across the walls, and some parts of the prison had clearly been hit by air strikes during the operation to recapture it.
More than 30 prison staff, including cooks, had been taken hostage during the uprising and paraded in front of an Isis flag for propaganda purposes, but most were liberated yesterday, according to the SDF.
About 12,000 Isis fighters are being held in SDF prisons across northeast Syria, with Gweiran the largest. Aid agencies have been warning for years that the facilities are overcrowded, insanitary and unsafe, and will serve as a powerful recruiting tool for future jihadist insurgencies. Up to 4,000 inmates are said to be foreigners, many from countries such as Britain, which have refused to take back their citizens who travelled to Syria to join Isis.
The prison battle began when two suicide bombers blew themselves and their trucks up outside the facility last Thursday evening. About 200 fighters stormed inside and seized control, with the backing of the inmates. Others fanned out into surrounding areas, seizing houses as vantage points. About 45,000 residents fled their homes.
More than 120 jihadists are believed to have been killed in the fight for control of Gweiran, along with 50 SDF fighters and seven civilians. All food and water supplies to the prison were cut off in the latter stages, which contributed to the jihadists’ surrender but also caused distress to the minors, held for “rehabilitation” in another wing.
Letta Tayler, the Human Rights Watch worker contacted by the Australian and American teenage inmates, said there had also been an outbreak of tuberculosis in the prison, almost certainly exacerbated by the cramped conditions during the siege.
Unicef said it was “hard to imagine” what atrocities the children, some as young as ten, had witnessed. “There needs to be collective responsibility to get these children out of these prisons and out of these camps,” Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman, said.
US and British special forces were called in to help to end the siege, backed up by air power.
Major-General John Brennan, head of the US-led coalition to fight Isis in Iraq and Syria, said the battle should re-focus minds on the future of Isis prisoners. “The makeshift prisons throughout Syria are a breeding ground for Daesh’s failed ideology,” he said. “We must thoroughly investigate the circumstances that allowed this attack to happen.”