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IS jihadists on the run after Kurdish prison attack in northeast Syria

Three years after the fall of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the Islamic State (IS) organization is pursuing its strategy of destabilization in the territories it has lost in Syria and Iraq, in order to reconstitute its areas of influence. The jihadist group launched, Thursday evening, January 20, in Hassaké, in the north-east of Syria administered by Kurdish forces, its largest military operation since 2019, by attacking the Ghwayran prison to release detainees. The fighting, which continued on Saturday, has already claimed dozens of lives. Almost simultaneously, the IS carried out an attack on Friday at dawn against a military base in the province of Diyala, in Iraq, killing eleven soldiers.

The assault on Ghwayran prison was launched by heavily armed IS fighters. More than a hundred assailants, led by foreign jihadists, most of them Iraqis, took part, said Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Inside the prison – home to nearly 5,000 inmates, including “ISIS commanders and some of the group’s most dangerous members,” according to Mr. Shami – prisoners staged a mutiny at the same time, burning blankets and plastic materials.

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An unknown number of prisoners took advantage of the explosion of a car bomb in front of the prison and the fighting with Kurdish forces to escape. The fighting continued on Friday in the northern part of the prison, still controlled by prisoners, as well as in the adjoining district of Zouhour, where fighters took refuge, causing some of the inhabitants to flee. The FDS announced that they had arrested more than 100 escapees. Seven SDF operatives and 28 Islamic State fighters were killed in the clashes, Farhad Shami said. The latest report established by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights shows 28 dead among Kurdish forces and prison guards, 45 among IS members, as well as five civilians killed.

The progress of Kurdish forces in Zuhour has been slowed by booby-traps planted in houses by the jihadists and the use of residents as human shields, Shami added. The FDS received support from the international anti-IS coalition. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that US forces had carried out airstrikes against IS members. On Friday evening, SDF commander Mazloum Abadi announced that his forces had succeeded in foiling the attack and that all the escapees had been arrested. However, Farhad Shami said on Saturday that “Fighting is taking place on the north side of the prison”, and evoked “an exceptional location inside and around the establishment”.

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