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Teenage inmates found among the 500 dead in Syria prison attack


A woman sat with her child on the rubble of her house in Hasaka, Syria, on Sunday. The home was destroyed in operations by the Syrian Democratic Forces aimed at capturing ISIS militants.

By Jane Arraf and Sangar Khaleel


The boy had dark-brown hair coated in white dust, and on his chin were the wispy beginnings of a beard.


On Sunday, his body and that of another youth were found lying on a dirt road behind the prison in northeastern Syria where a Kurdish-led force, backed by the U.S. military, fought for more than a week to put down an attempt by Islamic State group militants to free former fighters held there.


The discovery of the bodies was the first confirmation that at least two of up to 700 teenage boys, who had been detained in the prison because they were the children of Islamic State group fighters, were killed in the fighting.


The leader the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which ran the prison, acknowledged Monday that “a very small number” of the boys had been killed.


“Some escaped with the adults,” the commander, known by his nom de guerre Mazlum Kobani, said in an interview, his first since the siege began. “They were either rearrested or were killed.”


Some had been held as hostages during the prison siege, according to the SDF.


A fuller accounting of the Islamic State group prison siege, and the efforts by the Kurdish-led militia and American forces to put it down, emerged Monday, a day after the SDF regained full control over the Sinaa prison in the city of Hassakeh.


About 500 people were killed, 374 of them linked to the Islamic State group, the SDF said. The death toll also included about 40 SDF fighters, 77 prison staff and guards, and four civilians.


The group also said that the Islamic State group fighters who assaulted the prison had used sleeper cells to aid in the attack, and that the prison assault was part of a larger plot to also attack the giant detention camps in the same region that hold tens of thousands of people, most of them wives and children of Islamic State group fighters, and the city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate.


The boys had been held at the prison in Hassakeh for three years as the international community debated what to do with them.


The SDF has said that their ties to the Islamic State group made them dangerous, and some of the older ones may have been trained to fight, while human rights organizations consider them victims, children brought to the Islamic State group through no choice of their own.


Both groups have clamored for the boys’ home countries to repatriate them.


Kobani, the SDF commander, said he had been asking the international community for three years to build rehabilitation centers in his impoverished region. Without better facilities or unless their countries taking them back, he said, there was no where else but the prison to put them.


The bodies of the two boys seen by The New York Times on Sunday lay on a dirt road along with the remains of four other corpses, all of them dismembered. All appeared to have been shot.


One of them still wore socks made from gray blankets used at the prison. Fragments of orange prison uniforms were strewn nearby.


Some of the neighborhood boys kicked the corpses as they passed by, in a display of the deep hatred that many residents of this area harbor toward the Islamic State group.


Neighborhood residents said the boys were among a group of escaped inmates, most of them Iraqi, who were killed Friday by the SDF as its troops went door to door to hunt down Islamic State group fighters.


“Poor kids, they turned them into soldiers,” said a neighbor who did not give her name out of fear for her safety. “We wish they would take them away.”


It was not clear whether the boys had sought to escape with the Islamic State group fighters or were still being held hostage by them. Several residents said they did not see the boys or the escaped inmates alive and did not know whether any had been armed.


Kobani said all of the boys were trained Islamic State group fighters, an assertion disputed by human rights groups. And he said the boys ranged in age from 15 to 17. Human rights workers have said the boys were as young as 12.


He also appeared to be shocked about a Times report on Sunday that at least 80 bodies were dumped from a front-end loader onto the street and then shoveled into a gravel truck to be taken away to a mass grave.


“This is my first time hearing about it,” Kobani said. “If this happened, it is a sin.”


The American-led military coalition in northeast Syria, asked about the dead boys and the bodies being dumped, called both “an unfortunate reality” in war.


“The SDF employed the appropriate amount of lethal force to counter the attack and quell the detainee uprising,” the coalition said in a statement. “Time and again they tried to negotiate a full surrender, and used the necessary force to respond to hostile actions.”


One resident living near the prison, a Syrian government employee named Hassoun, said that groups of armed Islamic State group fighters had forced their way into his home Friday morning and again that night.


Hassoun, who asked to be identified by his first name only out of fear for his safety, said the gunmen took his phone, flipping through it to see if he was a member of the security forces. All of the militants were Iraqi, he said.


“They were complaining about the internet — they said ‘the Syrian internet is slow,’” Hassoun said.


At one point, he said, one of the gunmen opened the door to check the street and said, “There is an infidel dead.”


It was one of Hassoun’s neighbors, shot by Islamic State group fighters after they found a photo of him in an SDF uniform during compulsory military service. Relatives identified him as Ghassan Awaf al-Anezi, 20.


“It was horrifying,” Hassoun said. “I was just praying for the sun to rise.”

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