US strikes Syria's Hasakeh as deadly clashes continue after IS jailbreak

US strikes Syria's Hasakeh as deadly clashes continue after IS jailbreak
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The US-led international coalition has bombed a university building in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh as 70 people died in fighting following the storming of a prison by IS militants.
Dozens of people fled the fighting between IS and the SDF in Hasakeh [Getty]

Warplanes from the US-led international coalition bombed sites in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on Friday evening where IS militants had holed up following a dramatic prison break earlier that day.

IS militants earlier on Friday attacked the Ghwayran prison in Hasakeh, which was run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, in an attempt to free detainees from the group.

At least 70 people were killed in the resulting violence and fighting is ongoing as of Saturday morning between the SDF and IS. The IS militants are still in control of the prison.

"At least 28 members of the Kurdish security forces, five civilians and 45 members of IS have been killed" in the violence, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told AFP.

The airstrikes were confirmed by US Defence Department press secretary John Kirby.

A source close to the SDF told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that the coalition planes had targeted the Economics Facility of the Hasakeh campus of Al-Furat University, where IS fighters had taken up positions, causing significant damage to the building.

On Friday, the SDF’s top military commander, Mazloum Abdi, said IS mobilized “most of its sleeper cells” to organize the prison break, adding that SDF fighters had managed to apprehend the IS fugitives.

“Our security forces mobilized and succeeded with the help of the Coalition to repel the attack and the area around the prison was completely surrounded and all fugitives were arrested,” he wrote on Twitter.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that while 130 fighters were apprehended, dozens remained free.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday said it was continuing "operations to keep security in Hasakeh city and the perimeter of the Ghwayran prison," with the help of coalition allies and Kurdish internal security forces.

It said Saturday's clashes centred mostly in neighbourhoods north of Ghwayran, where it carried out raids and "killed a number of IS fighters that had attacked the jail."

The jihadist group said in a statement released on Friday by its Amaq news agency that its attack on the jail aimed to "free the prisoners".

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'Fat target'

IS has carried out regular attacks against Kurdish and regime targets in Syria since the rump of its once-sprawling proto-state was overrun in March 2019.

Most of their guerrilla attacks have been against military targets and oil installations in remote areas, but the Hasakeh prison break could mark a new phase in the group's resurgence.

It was not immediately clear whether the prison break was part of a centrally coordinated operation - timed to coincide with an attack on a military base in neighbouring Iraq - or the action of a local IS cell.

Analyst Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington said the jihadist group targeted the prison to bolster its numbers.

The Islamic State group "wants to move beyond being the terrorist and criminal network that it has devolved into, and to do that it needs more fighters," he told AFP.

"Prison breaks represent the best opportunity for ISIS to regain its strength in arms, and Ghwayran prison is a nice fat target for ISIS because its overcrowded," he said, using another acronym for IS.

The prospect of a repeat of the attack remains very real, said Colin Clarke, research director at the New York-based Soufan Center think-tank.

"The SDF needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with this threat," he said.

The Kurdish authorities have long warned they do not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, the thousands of IS fighters captured in years of operations.

According to Kurdish authorities, more than 50 nationalities are represented in a number of Kurdish-run prisons, where more than 12,000 IS suspects are now held.

Many of the IS prisoners' countries of origins have been reluctant to repatriate them, fearing a public backlash at home.

Abdulkarim Omar, the semi-autonomous administration's top foreign policy official, blamed the IS prison attack on the "international community's failure to shoulder its responsibilities."

The war in Syria broke out in 2011 following the brutal suppression of protests by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and has since killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II.