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Islamic State militants break out of prison during Syria earthquake chaos

People conduct search and rescue operations in the Afrin district of Aleppo, Syria - Anadolu Agency
People conduct search and rescue operations in the Afrin district of Aleppo, Syria - Anadolu Agency

Dozens of prisoners have escaped from a jail in northwestern Syria holding Islamic State (IS) fighters, as the West faces a dilemma over how to get aid into the earthquake-stricken region.

At least 20 prisoners fled the prison in the town of Rajo after launching a mutiny during the chaos unleashed by Monday’s barrage of deadly quakes in neighbouring Turkey.

The jail is said to hold around 2,000 prisoners, of which 1,300 are IS members and a smaller number are Kurdish-led fighters.

“After the earthquake struck, Rajo was affected and inmates started to mutiny and took control of parts of the prison,” an official at the prison said on Tuesday. “About 20 prisoners fled... who are believed to be IS militants.”

The jailbreak illustrates how the already dire, war-torn region of north west Syria has been plunged into even deeper chaos and misery in the wake of the tremors.

People search for survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings in Besnia in Syria - OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP
People search for survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings in Besnia in Syria - OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

A decade-long civil war between rebels in the northwest and the Syrian regime in Damascus has inflicted untold suffering on the region’s 4.5 million residents, forcing them to live under constant airstrikes and ground fighting.

In Idlib, one of the areas most badly ravaged by war, millions live in tented communities while buildings in the Aleppo countryside have been weakened by 12 years of battles.

Half of the population in the northwest is estimated to have been displaced several times and they have little access to basic needs such as clean water and fuel.

Rescue workers from the White Helmets in northwestern Syria say the scale of destruction caused by the quakes is far worse than some of the most dire wartime bombings they have witnessed. At least 900 people in rebel-held areas were reported to have died last night, but that is thought to be a significant undercount.

The prospect of Western nations getting international aid into the north west is already looking dim: there is only one land crossing from Turkey into Syria, Bab al-Hawa, and it was damaged by the earthquakes. The UN has said it does not have a “clear picture” of when it will reopen.

Analysts say the United Nations needs to urgently secure a deal that will open up more aid crossings, but Russia’s tendency to veto such moves due to its alliance with Syria will make that an immense diplomatic challenge.

To complicate matters further the Syrian regime - a global pariah - is insisting that it be solely responsible for delivering aid in Syria. The regime already has a stranglehold on aid supplies, with most of it flowing through Damascus, and is extremely unlikely to assist rebel-held areas such as the northwest.

As the Syrian regime is also notorious for syphoning aid for the vulnerable into the hands of its elite, Western countries will be very reluctant to go along with this approach. And as for aid workers, the Syrian regime currently allows them to assist people in regime-controlled areas, but very rarely does it let them enter the northwest.

The regime, led by dictator Bashar al-Assad, also claimed on Tuesday that Western sanctions imposed over its litany of war crimes in the civil war will hamper its own efforts to support the population.

Two members of the Syrian Red Crescent watch rescue workers at Masharqa neighborhood of Aleppo - STRINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Two members of the Syrian Red Crescent watch rescue workers at Masharqa neighborhood of Aleppo - STRINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The United States has already ruled out giving aid directly to Damascus. Ned Price, a spokesman for the US secretary of state, said “it would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years now, gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured”.

Andrew Mitchell, the UK international development minister, has said that Britain will give aid directly to the White Helmets in northwestern Syria, as it has for many years - a move that would sidestep the Assad regime but depend on access to any Turkey-Syria crossings.

Even then, experts say, the level of aid required is enormous, and almost unfathomable.

“For northwestern Syria, this earthquake represents a crisis within a crisis,” explained Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “After 12 years of brutal shelling by the Syrian regime, at least 65 per cent of the area’s basic infrastructure was already destroyed or heavily damaged. Every major hospital or medical clinic has reached capacity.”

“Making use of the existing UN aid mission and Turkish facilitation would allow a platform upon which to build, but the scale of the needed response is huge,” he added.

Personnel conduct search and rescue operations in Afrin district of Aleppo, Syria - Anadolu Agency
Personnel conduct search and rescue operations in Afrin district of Aleppo, Syria - Anadolu Agency

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have said it is essential that the Syrian regime allows aid into rebel-held areas despite the ongoing civil war.

“All parties, particularly Syrian government and Russian forces, must immediately cease attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as indiscriminate attacks in the region,” added Amnesty’s Aya Majzoub, the deputy Middle East director.

She was alluding to fears that the two countries will take advantage of the disaster by launching attacks on aid workers, a tactic that has been used heavily in Syria and more recently in Ukraine.

The grim task of rescuing Syrians buried under rubble continued on Tuesday, as young children were pulled out of collapsed buildings and swaddled in blankets. Many had spent the entire night in freezing agony.

In rebel-held Azaz, rescuers prised Raghad Ismail, a blood-smeared toddler in pyjamas, from her destroyed home. It was initially unclear whether she had been severely or mildly wounded.

Raghad Ismail was rescued from rubble of a collapsed building in rebel-held Azaz - MAHMOUD HASSANO/REUTERS
Raghad Ismail was rescued from rubble of a collapsed building in rebel-held Azaz - MAHMOUD HASSANO/REUTERS

But some hours later, thankfully, photographs emerged of her sitting contentedly on a sofa with a fluffy pink blanket around her legs.