Islamic State prisoners escape from Syrian jail after militants riot

Bethan McKernan Middle East Correspondent
Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Several members of Islamic State escaped from prison after militants sparked a riot and seized control of part of a large jail in north-east Syria, Kurdish and US military sources have said.

Prisoners put holes in the walls between cells and tore off internal doors during the unrest on Sunday night at Ghouiran prison in the city of Hasakah, overwhelming guards from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s Kurdish-led ground partner in the fight against Isis.

Inmates seized the ground floor and entered the prison courtyard, from where at least four men are believed to have left the facility. Local news said the four were later picked up by the police.

In security camera footage broadcast by the Kurdish news agency ANF, men in orange jumpsuits in a crowded room held a banner up to the camera demanding their human rights be respected. It was not immediately clear whether the riot was linked to fears over a potential coronavirus outbreak.

Aircraft from the US-led coalition against Isis assisted in surveillance overnight and into Monday morning, according to the operation’s military spokesperson, Col Myles Caggins III.

The situation remained tense on Monday, with prisoners still in control of some sections of the complex until at least lunchtime, when reinforcements in the form of an SDF counter-terror unit arrived.

Ivan Hassib, a local journalist, posted a video from outside the former school complex of dozens of SDF soldiers stationed outside the perimeter and on the roof of the large facility before the raid to quell the uprising began. Gunshots rang out and multiple ambulances arrived at the scene throughout the afternoon. There was no immediate confirmation of any casualties.

A statement from the SDF spokesman, Kino Gabriel, later on Monday said no prisoners had escaped but did not clarify whether that meant missing inmates had been captured. “The situation in the detention centre is completely under control,” he said.

The sound of gunfire continued and more ambulances arrived at the facility after Kino’s statement, according to Hassib and the Rojava Information Centre, a research group based in north-east Syria.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, also said its local networks reported four men had escaped. Syrian state media put the number at 12.

The Rojava Information Centre said Ghourian prison holds 3,000-5,000 people, many of whom are foreign nationals suspected of travelling to Syria to join the now-defunct “caliphate”. Only “low-level” prisoners were housed at the facility, Caggins added.

Isis lost control of its last territory in Syria a year ago after a five-year-long ground and air campaign by the US-led coalition. The SDF says it is still holding about 12,000 fighters in overcrowded prisons across its territory in north-east Syria, along with about 100,000 women and children in squalid detention camps.

Up to 2,000 male prisoners are foreigners from almost 50 countries. An estimated 60 British children are still in the area.

In October last year, Turkey made good on a long-standing threat to attack the Kurdish-led forces, that Ankara views as terrorists, across the border. In the ensuing chaos, 249 women and 700 children with links to Isis walked out of a secure annex at Ain Issa camp when guards abandoned their posts after Turkish shelling.

The Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on the international community to repatriate citizens, warning they do not have the resources to house Isis suspects indefinitely. Years of stonewalling from western governments, however, has led them to suggest foreign nationals could be tried in the Kurdish administration’s courts.

Human Rights Watch and other groups say many inmates in male prisons are children or were arrested on flimsy charges, echoing similar concerns over the processing of Isis suspects over the border in Iraq.