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Syria: Hundreds of children trapped in Hasakah jail during deadly clashes

Kurdish-led forces tell MEE IS fighters are using children as human shields, as battle continues around the prison
Syrian Democratic Forces conduct search for Islamic State militants in Hasakah (Reuters)
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Erbil, Iraq

Campaigners have warned about the plight of hundreds of children currently trapped in a prison in northeast Syria, which has become the centre of clashes between the Islamic State group and Kurdish-led forces.

Fighting first engulfed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-administered jail in the city of Hasakah on Thursday, when IS fighters rammed two explosives-packed vehicles into it as part of an attempted breakout.

The ongoing attack on Ghwayran jail, thought to house thousands of suspected members of the group, is reported to have left more than 210 people dead so far.

'The situation is very dangerous, there is progress in favour of the SDF, but the battle continues inside and outside the prison'

- Amjad Othman, SDC spokesperson

Save the Children on Monday said they had evidence of multiple child deaths and casualties at the prison.

The group said it had received audio testimony to that effect, including a recording of one boy crying. The minors held in the jail, some of whom had been there for as long as three years, came from dozens of foreign countries.

Last week, the SDF claimed that IS were using the children as human shields.

A spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF's civilian wing, told Middle East Eye that fighting was ongoing and called for help from international aid organisations.

"The children of IS are in Al-Hasakah, but now they are safe," said SDC spokesperson Amjad Othman.

"The situation is very dangerous, there is progress in favour of the SDF, but the battle continues inside and outside the prison," he said.

He added that he feared "that the humanitarian crisis will intensify".

However, SDF spokesperson Aram Hanna told MEE that while their forces were "completely in charge of the situation" IS fighters were still "using the kids as shields."

Repatriation calls

Both the SDF and rights groups have long called for foreign countries to repatriate the children of IS members that are currently trapped in Syria.

So far, however, many of the home nations have been reluctant to take back their citizens, fearing a domestic backlash and the potential for the rise of sleeper cells.

The assault on the prison is the largest operation carried out by the organisation in the country since its territorial defeat in 2017 and has raised fears of a resurgence of the group.

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In a statement released by its "news agency" Amaq, IS said it had carried out a "large-scale and coordinated" attack on the prison and freed hundreds of its members, though this information has not been confirmed.

Juliette Touma, regional chief of advocacy and communications for Unicef's Middle East and North Africa regional office, said that the children needed to be released from what were "precarious" and unlawful conditions.

"In addition, they need to be rehabilitated - many of these children have faced atrocities, they have faced traumas, they are in a state of shock, so they need psychological rehabilitation and eventually they need to be reunited with their families," she told MEE.

"And if they are children of foreign countries, or foreign national children, they need to be repatriated, meaning they need to be sent to their country of origin and eventually reintegrated in to their local communities."