BEIRUT -- In a recording that emerged from a Syrian prison wing taken over by Islamic State group militants, a trapped teenager pleads for help, describing the mayhem of a days-long battle over the facility that has reportedly left multiple child inmates killed and wounded.
U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces were advancing slowly inside the detention facility, where they said Tuesday they freed nine of their servicemen held hostage by the militants. At least 15 others are still held by IS, one Kurdish official said.
IS militants stormed the prison late Thursday, aiming to break out comrades inside. Around 200 militants remain holed up in the northern wing at one end of the prison complex, holding hostages from among the prison staff.
The Gweiran Prison, also known as al-Sinaa, is the largest detention facility in northeast Syria for suspected IS members, with more than 3,000 inmates, including hundreds of minors.
The attack is the biggest by IS militants since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019. Dozens from both sides have been killed in the clashes, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out nearly a dozen airstrikes, and thousands of civilians living nearby have been displaced.
The militants are also using minors as human shields, Kurdish officials say, slowing the effort by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to retake the facility, located in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.
Children are reportedly among the dead and wounded from the fighting, rights groups say, though numbers are not known.
Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch, said she had unconfirmed reports that SDF paramedics were treating wounded children, along with others, in newly recaptured parts of the prison complex.
She said she learned from a well-placed source that militants had moved the boys to various parts of the prison and they were no longer segregated in an area for minors, “which complicates rescue and recapture efforts.”
Human Rights Watch provided The Associated Press with a series of audio messages sent by a 17-year-old Australian from inside the prison.
He appealed for help and described his surroundings, saying he was in a kitchen when fighting erupted around him. He said he was injured in the head and was bleeding.
“They are not stopping shooting. Every little bit they shoot. Every little bit they hit a missile. I don’t know what to do,” the teen said. HRW removed the teen's name from the recording.
“I have seen a lot of bodies of kids. Eight, 10, 12 years (old). My friends got killed here. I am very scared. I am by myself,” he said.
“There is no doctors here that can help me. I need help please. I am very scared. There are a lot of people dead in front of me. I am scared I might die anytime because of bleeding. Please help me.”
Overnight, scores of minors were transported in buses out of the complex, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said. But it appears some remain in the militants' hands.
Some 600 minor boys, around half of them Iraqis and other non-Syrians, were inmates in the prison. Most are between 14 to 17 years old, though some are as young as 12, Tayler said.
Most were captured by Kurdish forces during their U.S.-backed campaign that brought down IS three years ago. IS had trained young boys for combat, calling them “Cubs of the Caliphate,” but it is not known how many of those in the prison are from the Cubs ranks.
“These children ... should never have been placed in this squalid, overcrowded prison, where their lives are clearly at risk to begin with,” Tayler said.
The days of fighting has shaken Hassakeh, spreading to residential areas where the militants have taken cover. Coalition airstrikes have hit the prison and the nearby neighborhoods. The coalition also deployed Bradley Fighting Vehicles to support the operation, according to a coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Some 45,000 civilians have fled, according to the U.N. Most have moved in with family and friends, but 750 have taken refuge in temporary shelters, including mosques.
Shexa Miziyen is one of about 150 in a mosque in the Til Hajar neighborhood. She said IS militants forced their way into her home at dawn and kicked her and her family out.
“They said they didn’t want anything. They wanted safety,” she said. Miziyen said those in the mosque were receiving no help even as more sought shelter there. "It seems that they forgot about us.”
Khalil Hassan was forced to host militants who took over his home for a few hours overnight for shelter from the fighting.
“They said, ‘We are your brothers from the Islamic State and we won’t hurt you. Just let us in,’” Hassan said. They left hours later.
The SDF said in a statement that it had gained control of more prison cells Tuesday and freed nine hostages. It said more inmates have surrendered, bringing the total number to 550.
Through loudspeakers, the SDF has called on militants to surrender. It said its fighters recaptured over 100 inmates who escaped. The total number of fugitives remains unclear.
Freeing convicts and imprisoned comrades has been a main tactic of the Islamic State group. During their 2014 surge that overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria, IS carried out multiple prison breaks.