US forces return to battle as allies struggle to subdue Islamic State fighters

HASAKA, Syria – US and Kurdish forces battled Islamic State fighters in northeastern Syria on Saturday, in the most intense urban combat involving US soldiers in Iraq or Syria since the fall of the self-proclaimed caliphate. of the Islamic State in 2019.

The fighting spilled over into residential areas of Hasaka, near where Kurdish forces were trying to subdue the last Islamic State gunmen barricaded in a prison during a week-long siege.

Several dozen bodies, some dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, were seen carried away by Kurdish militiamen near al-Sinaa prison on Saturday, an indication of the scale of the fighting in recent days.

An official of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia, said clearing operations were continuing in the Ghweran neighborhood around the prison to find ISIS sleeper cells. Kurdish-led counterterrorism forces backed by US special operations troops went house to house through the narrow alleyways of the predominantly Arab quarter of the city.

Kurdish forces threw flash grenades into homes where they believed Islamic State fighters were hiding as residents gathered in the streets.

This round of fighting began eight days ago after an ISIS attack on the prison, which housed more than 3,000 ISIS operatives and nearly 700 detained minors.

The Syrian Democratic Forces said about 30 Islamic State fighters surrendered on Friday, but the remaining militants in the prison were believed to be holding teenage inmates as human shields.

“We think there are caliphate bears with them, said Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesman, referring to children forced by ISIS to become fighters.

“They are using these children to prevent our forces from carrying out serious military operations,” he added.

The SDF has released conflicting information about the siege. On Wednesday, he said he regained full control of the prison after the United States launched airstrikes and sent in armored fighting vehicles to help retake the compound. On Thursday, it was clear that fighting with armed men barricaded in prison buildings was continuing.

On Saturday, there were growing signs that the battle was much fiercer than originally reported.

On the outskirts of the Ghweran neighborhood, where the prison is located, New York Times reporters saw what appeared to be at least 80 bodies being transported in a small truck from the prison and dumped in a heap on the road. Kurdish fighters lifted them one by one into the shovel of a yellow front-end loader, which moved them into a 40ft gravel truck to be taken away for burial.

Some bodies wore orange prison jumpsuits while others were dressed in civilian clothes, which are also worn by prisoners in the detention center. Almost all the corpses were intact and without blood, many faces and bodies black with soot.

A distraught fighter yelled at a Times photographer not to take pictures.

“We know it’s not right, but there are so many,” he said.

Hasaka, in the breakaway Kurdish-ruled region of Rojava, is surrounded by hostile Syrian forces and Turkish-backed troops occupying northwest Syria.

The region is grappling with existential security threats, a lack of infrastructure and near financial collapse. Foreign countries have refused to repatriate IS fighters and their families, leaving Rojava to become a haven for remnants of IS’s self-declared caliphate, including thousands of accused fighters and tens of thousands of members of their family.

The local administration in Rojava has long warned that it does not have the resources or the capacity to run secure prisons and detention camps.

The US maintains around 700 troops in Rojava as part of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But until the prison siege, US forces were mostly conducting relatively routine missions that avoided the Russian military presence in the same area.

The SDF said on Saturday that 13 of its fighters were killed taking over the prison and securing the area, although the figure is likely higher. It did not release figures on the number of detainees killed in the fighting.

A US-led coalition official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said it would take time to determine how many fighters of the ‘ISIS have been killed in the recent fighting.

SDF officials said detainees under the age of 18 had been moved to a new location. The miners were brought to Syria as young children with their parents.

An official of the YPG, the main Kurdish faction, said most of the Islamic State fighters who were still barricaded in the prison surrendered on Friday evening after Kurdish-led forces stormed the building.

“They told us they were surrendering, then they came out one by one and put their weapons on the ground,” YPG media director Siyamend Ali said. He said some had put on suicide belts.

Hasaka has been in custody since the January 20 prison break. Shops are closed and makeshift shelters house families displaced by the fighting. In some areas, there has been no electricity or running water for more than a week.

In the Ghweran neighborhood on Saturday, a group of men and boys stood in an alleyway down the street in front of American and Kurdish armored vehicles.

“It’s an incredibly bad situation,” said a worker who would only be identified by his first name, Mohammad, because he was afraid to talk about the Islamic State. “The neighborhood has not yet been cleaned up properly and ISIS is using the rooftops to jump from house to house.”

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