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US-Backed Forces Say They Foiled IS Prison Break in Northeast Syria

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard in a prison where men suspected to be members of the Islamic State are jailed in northeast Syria in the city of Hasakeh on Oct. 26, 2019.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard in a prison where men suspected to be members of the Islamic State are jailed in northeast Syria in the city of Hasakeh on Oct. 26, 2019.

Local security forces affiliated with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said Monday they thwarted a plot by a suspected Islamic State group cell to carry out an attack on a prison holding IS fighters in northeast Syria.

The operation, carried out in the early hours of Monday, took place in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, SDF's internal security forces said.

"After our forces received intelligence that a terrorist cell affiliated with (IS) in Deir al-Zour region was planning to begin an attack on the Sina'a prison in Hasaka, our anti-terror units, with support from the international coalition, were able to identify the location of the cell and wage a quality operation against it," the SDF said in a statement.

In the firefight that ensued, an IS militant was killed, another wounded, and four others were arrested, the statement added. Dozens of firearms, rockets and improvised explosive devices as well as ammunition were also seized during the operation, according to the SDF.

Without giving more details, the coalition also said one militant was killed and three others detained in the joint operation with the SDF in Deir al-Zour.

The SDF is a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against IS in Syria.

Concerns over makeshift prisons

Since declaring the military defeat of IS in March 2019, the SDF has been holding over 10,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 foreign nationals. Some of them are held in the Sina'a prison in Hasaka, where IS militants allegedly planned the prison break.

In recent years, IS inmates have made several attempts to escape from SDF-held detention centers in northeast Syria. None of them have been successful, however.

For years, both Kurdish and U.S. military officials have raised concerns about security at the dozen or so SDF-run prisons holding captured IS fighters.

Many of the prisons are converted schools or hospitals and were never meant to hold prisoners over a long term, despite the occasional influx of millions of dollars in aid and supplies from the U.S. and other coalition partners.

Multiple officials have warned that the prisons cannot hold indefinitely, though key Kurdish officials see no end in sight.

"It's really very complicated and difficult," Elham Ahmad, the executive president of the SDF's political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, told VOA in response to a question during a recent visit to Washington.

"I cannot put a timeline because I don't see anything happening in the soon future," Ahmad added, saying IS foreign fighters remain the biggest obstacle. "Most of the countries refuse to take their citizens back. … But this is going to take a long time, and it's a pretty big burden."

Ahmad, speaking through a translator, also warned that the aid from the U.S. and others is not sufficient to maintain security and "fix everything completely."

"I would call it more of an urgent sort of assistance … humanitarian issues that have to do with food and water," she said.

In its quarterly report released last week, the Pentagon Inspector General said that while the global coalition "continued to provide materiel and support to the SDF to improve the physical security, capacity, and conditions in the facilities, detainees continued to live in substandard and overcrowded living conditions."

The anti-IS coalition "said the poor living conditions increased the chance of breakouts," the report added, noting that "there was one escape attempt by detainees during the quarter" from July 1 to September 30.

In August, the global coalition said the British government had invested $20 million to expand one of the detention facilities holding IS detainees in northeast Syria.

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.