20 suspected ISIS fighters escape prison in outbreak of mutiny

Earthquake death toll in Turkey and Syria rises to over 4000

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At least 20 suspected fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group have reportedly held a mutiny and escaped from a Syrian prison in the wake of the earthquakes that struck the country and neighbouring Turkey. The inmates fled the northwestern Syrian town of Rajo during the chaos unleashed by three consecutive earthquakes on Monday and Tuesday. The facility has around 2,000 detainees, including around 1,300 suspected of fighting for IS, an unnamed source at the facility told AFP.

The source, who did not wish to be identified, said: “Following the earthquake, which affected Rajo, the inmates launched a mutiny and took control of parts of the prison. About twenty prisoners escaped (…) They are believed to be members of IS.”

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, whose epicentre was less than 100 kilometres from Rajo, near Gaziantep in Turkey, caused damage to the prison, with walls and doors cracking, the source added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), a London-based NGO with an extensive network of sources in the war-torn country, confirmed the mutiny but stated that it was unable to determine whether prisoners had escaped.

The incident in Rajo follows an IS attack on a security facility in their former de facto headquarters of Raqa, Syria, in December where members of the organisation tried to release fellow jihadists from prison.

The failed assault resulted in the deaths of six members of the local Kurdish security forces.

The latest earthquakes have raised fears the region could plunge into chaos again, as the region’s 4.5 million residents have borne the brunt of a decade-long civil war between rebels and the Syrian regime in Damascus.

Half the population in the north-west is believed to have been displaced several times over and have limited access to clean water and fuel.

The government and rescuers said that at least 1,444 people died in Syria on Monday as a result of the deadly earthquake, which had its epicentre in southwestern Turkey.

In rebel-held parts of the country’s northwest, at least 733 people were killed and more than 2,100 injured, according to the White Helmets rescue group.

Syria’s conflict began in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful protests and has since drawn in foreign powers and global jihadists.

Nearly 500,000 people have been killed, and the conflict has displaced roughly half of the country’s pre-war population, with many seeking refuge in Turkey.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is facing an election in a few months, said offers of aid to Turkey had come from 45 countries ranging from Kuwait to Israel, Russia and the UK. Syria said it had received offers of help from China, Russia, Lebanon, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh described the earthquake emergency as a “hammer blow” for Syria’s displaced populations who have no work and whose savings have been exhausted.

“We’re in the depths of winter, we’ve been seeing snowstorms and of course, you know, the war has been going on for over a decade,” he said.

At least 5,894 have died in Turkey, bringing the overall lives lost in both countries so far to 7,926. The numbers are expected to increase “significantly”, Syria’s White Helmets said.

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega

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