More than 100 ISIS prisoners have escaped in Syria in the chaos since Turkey’s invasion, a top U.S. State Department official told Congress today.
James Jeffrey, Washington’s special envoy for Syria, said the number is ‘now over 100’ and said: ‘We do not know where they are’.
His claims undermine Donald Trump’s assertion today that captured ISIS prisoners had been ‘secured’ under a deal between Russia and Turkey.
However, Trump quickly insisted that some of the escaped prisoners had already been recaptured.
Detention camps in Syria are believed to be holding more than 10,000 militants, including some 2,000 foreign fighters.
In addition, tens of thousands of ISIS-linked women and children are held at the al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who remains at large, called on his supporters last month to attack the camps and set the detainees free.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) previously warned they would not be able to spare the forces to guard al-Hol once Turkey invaded.
Trump’s critics have voiced fears of an ISIS breakout and revival ever since the President ordered U.S. forces out of Syria earlier this month.
However, Jeffrey said today that the Kurdish fighters were still guarding prisoners from the extremist group.
‘Almost all of the prisons that the SDF were guarding are still secured. The SDF still has people there,’ Jeffrey said.
‘We are monitoring that as best we can. We still have people in Syria working with the SDF and one of those priorities is these prisons,’ he said.
The SDF were Washington’s main allies in the push to defeat ISIS earlier this year when the terror group’s so-called ‘caliphate’ crumbled to nothing.
Trump has since been accused of ‘betraying’ the Kurds by pulling out U.S. troops and clearing the way for a Turkish invasion.
ISIS has continued to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas since losing its last scrap of territory in March.
Jeffrey also told Congress that he was ‘cynical’ about the Turkey-Russia agreement which will see the two countries jointly patrol the border zone.
Yesterday he said that the U.S. was counting on both Turkey and the Kurdish fighters to contain ISIS in Syria.
‘Both Turkey and the SDF have fought against ISIS,’ he told a U.S. Senate panel yesterday.
‘If they are not forced to face off against each other, we can rely on both of them against ISIS,’ he said.
‘We’ve done a pretty good job of bringing this attack to a halt. Turkey has not really gained all that much from this.’
He estimated that the number of Kurdish victims of Turkey’s advance was ‘in the low hundreds.’
Today Russian troops crossed the Euphrates River in Syria and will start patrolling the area alongside Syrian forces, under the deal struck in Sochi yesterday.
Russian patrols have already begun near the city of Manbij, where U.S. troops were manning a base until two weeks ago.
From today, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will ‘facilitate the removal’ of Kurdish fighters and their weapons from within 18 miles of the border.
This withdrawal must be finalised within 150 hours, according to a text of the agreement released after the talks.
The Russians entered the city of Kobani in a particularly symbolic blow to the Kurds, who fought ISIS for control of it in 2014-15.
Trump declared today that captured ISIS prisoners had been ‘secured’ as he hailed the deal and said the Kurds were ‘safe and have worked very nicely with us’.
Once the Kurdish fighters have withdrawn, Russian and Turkish forces will then begin joint patrols along the Turkish-controlled zone.
The two countries are also said to be in talks about extra deliveries of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems to Ankara.
In the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli – excluded from the Sochi agreement – hundreds demonstrated against the deal on Wednesday, saying it amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Turkey said it had been informed by the U.S. that their withdrawal from the border areas had been ‘completed’.
‘At this stage, there is no further need to carry out a new operation,’ the defence ministry said in a statement.
However, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would take ‘the necessary steps’ if Russian and American promises to push Kurdish fighters away were not kept. AFP