Nearly 800 women and children affiliated with ISIS escaped from Ain Issa camp in northern Syria on Sunday 13 October, Kurdish officials said, when many in the severely depleted Kurdish militias were forced to leave their posts to join the fighting.
The 249 women and 700 children formerly part of the “caliphate” were held in a secure annexe at the Ain Issa camp. They began to riot and scared away the guards after Turkish shelling struck close to the area on Sunday, Abdulkader Mwahed, the joint president for humanitarian affairs in the Kurdish-held part of Syria, said in a statement.
As the Kurds are redeploying guards out of the prisons and camps to fight the Turks, it has become easier for ISIS members to break out.
“The guarding is very weak now,” Marvan Qamishlo from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told the Independent.
The camp, which holds about 12,000 displaced people and is situated roughly 50km north of Raqqa, would require 1,500 guards, he said, warning: “We don’t have this sufficient number.”
Children in danger
The increased instability has put children in the camp at risk. Save the Children’s staff members on the ground reported that no foreign women were left at the Ain Issa camp and that masked men on motorbikes were circling the perimeter. In a statement, the organisation warned “there was a danger that children of foreign nationals could now be lost in the chaos.”
“Once again, we urgently call on foreign governments to repatriate their nationals while they can. The opportunity is quickly slipping away,” said Save the Children’s Syria response director Sonia Khush.
“We heard reports that the authorities on the ground took some of the foreign women to another location, but many have fled, and some are unaccounted for,” Khush added.
The camp was home to a total of about 12,000 people, including three suspected British orphans and a notorious British recruiter for Isis, Tooba Gondal.
Almost 100,000 women and young children are locked in squalid camps for suspected ISIS family members with insufficient clean water or health care. Nearly 340 children died in al-Hol, the largest of the camps, between December and September, according to the International Rescue Committee. Most of them from preventable diseases such as severe diarrhea and malnutrition and most were under five years old.
The Syrian Democratic Forces says it is currently holding more than 12,000 suspected IS members in seven prisons, and at least 4,000 of them are foreign nationals. They operate an archipelago of ad hoc wartime detention sites for captive ISIS fighters, ranging from former schoolhouses in towns like Ain Issa and Kobani to a former Syrian government prison at Hasaka.
“Whoever cares about the secure detention of the prisoners, they are welcome to come and find a solution,” senior SDF official Redur Xelil told BBC, warning the Turkish operation was opening the way for ISIS to regroup.
The Kurds also operate more than a dozen camps for families displaced by the conflict that hold tens of thousands of people, many of them non-Syrian wives and children of Islamic State fighters. These include the giant Al Hol camp about 25 miles southeast of Hasaka, where some 70,000 people have been living in increasingly dire conditions, and a camp in Ain Issa.
Turkey launched an offensive against the Kurdish-led SDF over its southern border on 9 October, a move widely condemned by the international community for triggering a humanitarian disaster, opening a new front in Syria’s complex war and risking the re-emergence of Isis, which lost control of its final slivers of territory in March.
As the Turkish invasion entered its fifth day, the UN said at least 130,000 people had been displaced by the conflict, with many more likely on the move.
“It is vital that Turkish forces in the area respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to minimize the impact of their military operations on civilian populations. Turkey must ensure civilians fleeing the conflict can access safer areas including by crossing the border into Turkey to seek international protection,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said in a statement.
The Kurdish Red Crescent, a local NGO not affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said 14 civilians have died, with another 46 seriously injured as a result of the offensive to date. Nine people, including a Syrian baby, have been killed in counterattack SDF shelling of Turkish border towns.
Two of Turkey’s NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey and the Arab League has denounced the operation amid global outcry.