HASAKA, Syria — U.S. and Kurdish forces battled ISIS fighters in northeastern Syrian on Saturday, in the most intense urban combat involving American soldiers in Iraq or Syria since the self-declared ISIS caliphate fell in 2019.
Fighting spilled into the residential areas of Hasaka, Syria, near where Kurdish forces were trying to subdue the last ISIS gunmen barricaded in a prison in a weeklong siege.
Several dozen bodies, some dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, were seen on Saturday being carted away by Kurdish militiamen near al-Sinaa prison, an indication of the scale of fighting in recent days.
An official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish militia, said clearing operations continued in the Ghweran neighborhood around the prison to find ISIS sleeper cells. Kurdish-led counterterrorism forces backed by U.S. special operators went house-to-house in the narrow alleys of the neighborhood in the majority Arab city.
Kurdish forces threw flash grenades into homes they believed ISIS fighters were hiding as residents gathered in the streets.
This round of fighting began eight days ago after an attack by ISIS on the prison, which housed more than 3,000 ISIS members and almost 700 detained minors.
The S.D.F. said about 30 ISIS fighters had surrendered on Friday, but that the remaining militants in the prison were believed to be holding teenage detainees as human shields.
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“We think there are Cubs of the Caliphate with them,” Farhad Shami, an S.D.F. spokesman, said in reference to the children forced by ISIS to become fighters.
“They are using those children to prevent our forces from conducting serious military operations,” he added.
The S.D.F. has released conflicting information about the siege. On Wednesday it declared it had regained full control of the prison after the U.S. launched airstrikes and sent in armored fighting vehicles to help retake the complex. On Thursday, it was clear that fighting with gunmen barricaded in prison buildings was continuing.
By Saturday, there were increasing signs that the battle was much fiercer than had initially been reported.
On the edge of the Ghweran neighborhood, where the prison is located, journalists for The New York Times saw what appeared to be at least 80 bodies being transported in a small truck from the direction of the prison and being dumped in a pile on the road. Kurdish fighters heaved them one by one into the shovel of a yellow front-end loader, which moved them into a 40-foot gravel truck to be taken away for burial.
Some bodies were in orange prison jumpsuits while others were dressed in civilian clothing, which is also worn by prisoners at the detention facility. Almost all the corpses were intact and unbloodied, many of their faces and bodies black with soot.
A distraught fighter shouted at a Times photographer not to take photos.
“We know this is not right but there are so many of them,” he said.
Hasaka, in a breakaway Kurdish-led region of Rojava, is surrounded by hostile Syrian forces and Turkish-backed troops that occupy northwestern Syria.
The region has been struggling with existential security threats, a lack of infrastructure and near financial collapse. Foreign countries have refused to repatriate ISIS fighters and their families, leaving Rojava to become a breeding ground for the remnants of the self-declared ISIS caliphate, including thousands of accused fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.
The local administration in Rojava has long warned that it does not have the resources or the ability to run secure prisons and detention camps.
The U.S. maintains about 700 troops in Rojava as part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. But until the prison siege the American forces for the most part conducted relatively routine missions that avoided the Russian military presence in the same area.
The S.D.F. said on Saturday that 13 of its fighters had been killed retaking the prison and securing the area, although that figure is likely higher. It has not released figures for the numbers of inmates killed in the fighting.
An official with the U.S.-led coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said it would take time to determine how many ISIS fighters were killed in the recent fighting.
S.D.F. officials have said prison inmates who were under age 18 have been transferred to a new location. The minors were brought to Syria as young children with their parents.
An official with the YPG, the main Kurdish faction, said most of the ISIS fighters that were still barricaded in the prison surrendered on Friday night after the Kurdish-led forces stormed the building.
“They told us they were surrendering and then they came out one by one and put their guns on the ground,” said Siyamend Ali, the YPG media director. He said some laid down suicide belts.
Hasaka has been under lockdown since the prison break on Jan. 20. Shops are shuttered and makeshift shelters house families displaced by the fighting. In some areas there has been no electricity or running water for more than a week.
In the Ghweran neighborhood on Saturday, a group of men and boys stood in an alley down the street from U.S. and Kurdish armored vehicles.
“It is an unbelievably bad situation,” said a laborer who would only be identified only by his first name, Mohammad, because he feared speaking about ISIS. “The neighborhood has not been cleared properly, yet and ISIS is using the rooftops to jump from one house to another.”