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Children as young as 9 trapped in besieged prison in northeast Syria

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Idlib, Syria on 20 November 2021 [İzzettin Kasım/Anadolu Agency]
Syrian children at a refugee camp in Idlib, Syria on 20 November 2021 [İzzettin Kasım/Anadolu Agency]

Fears are growing for some 850 children possibly as young as nine-years-old trapped inside a prison in northeast Syria after an attack carried out by Daesh fighters.

Last Thursday several Daesh prisoners escaped after a car bomb was detonated along the perimeter of the prison and vehicles rammed the prison walls.

Prisoners broke out into the corridors, overpowered and killed several guards and escaped the prison, according to news reports.

The militants were trying to free some 3,500 Daesh prisoners held there and, in the process, took a group of boys hostage to use as human shields.

Most of the boys caught up in this week's violence at the prison are from dozens of foreign countries, as well as Syria and Iraq.

Last year Human Rights Watch said some 43,000 foreign men, women and children linked to Daesh were being unlawfully detained in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria.

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and US troops stormed the prison to regain control putting the children inside at "immediate risk" according to UNICEF.

A 17-year-old Australian boy said he was wounded in the head amid efforts to recapture the prison and witnessed his friends, one aged 15 and one aged 14, being shot dead in front of him.

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The SDF says that some 550 militants have surrendered and 220 people have been killed.

In audio testimony from inside the prison one boy can be heard pleading for help: "There's no doctors here that can help. There's lots of people dead in front of me."

Associate Director of Human Right Watch's Crisis and Conflict Division, Letta Tayler, wrote on Twitter that she had spoken with several foreign nationals inside the prison who fear they will be shot if they leave.

Those trapped inside are calling on the UN to negotiate their safe exit whilst an 18-year-old US citizen asked for food and water after six days without food.

According to Letta Tayler's thread, there is a tuberculosis outbreak in the prison and now all patients are mixed in with the others.

"All those involved in the fighting at Guweiran Prison have a responsibility to protect these children from harm," said Save the Children's Syria Response Director Sonia Khush.

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"We urge them to take all possible steps immediately to ensure that these children can leave in safety."

"Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria. Risk of death or injury is directly linked to these governments' refusal to take them home," added Khush.

"All foreign children must be repatriated – with their families – without any further delay. The international community cannot have the blood of any of these children on their hands."

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