Irbil, Iraq — It was ISIS's biggest operation since U.S.-backed forces declared defeat over the terror group's self-proclaimed "caliphate" in March 2019: A week ago,militants holding almost 3,500 inmates in northern Syria — most of them well-trained ISIS fighters who were locked up as the group lost ground several years ago.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mostly Kurdish militias backed by the U.S. during Syria's vicious civil war, announced on Wednesday that it had finally managed to retake control of the prison, with all inmates and attackers either dead or in custody, after six days of fighting.
"The Peoples' Hammer Operation has culminated with our entire control of the al-Sina'a prison in al-Hasaka and the surrender of all Daesh terrorists," SDF spokesman Farhad Shami said in a message posted online, using the Arabic name for ISIS.
According to SDF officials, ISIS spent six months planning its attack on the prison. The terror group swarmed sleeper cells from the region around the facility and then waited for the right moment. Last week, as guards huddled up against bitter cold weather, about 200 ISIS militants stormed the prison, led by suicide car bombs targeting the facility and fuel tankers at a nearby gas station. They used the smoke to help shield them from U.S.-led coalition helicopters and drones.
SDF sources told CBS News the operation to reassert control over the prison took almost a week partly due to the forces' concern about the lives of nearly 800 underaged prisoners, know as ISIS "cubs," who they said the terrorists were using as human shields.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria had "provided some airstrikes to support them [SDF] as they deal with this prison break."
Journalists on the ground posted videos showing what appeared to be American special forces working closely with the Kurdish fighters.
One SDF source told CBS News that U.S. helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and drone aircraft all played a big role in the fight to retake the prison.
It remained unclear on Wednesday how many inmates managed to escape from the prison, and there were no casualty figures released in the immediate wake of the operation to retake the facility.
ISIS claimed earlier that hundreds of its incarcerated fighters had fled in the siege, but the group is known to embellish its successes.
The standoff at the prison spread fear in northeast Syria and neighboring Iraq. Iraq's prime minister visited is country's northern province of Nineveh on Wednesday to meet military and security leaders. They discussed tightening security along the Syrian border.
Iraqi journalist and activist Dlovan Barwari told CBS News that almost a third of the prisoners held at the facility in al-Hasaka were believed to be Iraqi ISIS fighters, so Iraq has legitimate fears about the fate of any who did manage to escape - especially after ISIS proving that it remains capable of conducting such a large-scale, organized operation.
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