The Daily Telegraph

IS fighters flee prison rocked by quake

War-torn region of north western Syria is plunged into deeper chaos as Damascus says it wants to receive aid relief directly

- By James Rothwell in Jerusalem and Abbie Cheeseman in Beirut

AT LEAST 20 Islamic State prisoners have escaped from a jail in Syria as the West faces a dilemma over how to get aid into the earthquake-stricken region.

The inmates fled the prison in the north western town of Rajo during the chaos unleashed by Monday’s barrage of deadly earthquake­s in Syria and neighbouri­ng Turkey.

The jail is believed to hold about 2,000 prisoners – including 1,300 members of IS and a smaller number of 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 said yesterday. “About 20 prisoners fled... who are believed to be IS militants.”

The jailbreak illustrate­s how the wartorn region of north-west Syria has been plunged into even deeper chaos in the wake of the tremors.

The region’s 4.5million residents have borne the brunt of a decade-long civil war between rebels and the Syrian regime in Damascus.

In Idlib, one of the areas most badly ravaged by war, millions live in tented communitie­s while buildings in the Aleppo countrysid­e have been damaged by 12 years of battles. Half of the population in the north west is estimated to have been displaced several times over and they have limited access to clean water and fuel.

Rescue workers from the White Helmets say the scale of destructio­n caused by the earthquake­s is far worse than some of the wartime bombings they have witnessed.

At least 900 people in rebel-held areas were reported to have died last night, but that figure is expected to rise. The prospect of Western nations getting internatio­nal aid into the region is already looking slim as there is only one land crossing from Turkey into Syria, Bab al-hawa, and it was damaged by the earthquake­s.

The United Nations has said it does not have a “clear picture” of when it will reopen.

Analysts say the UN needs urgently to secure a deal that will open up more aid crossings, but Russia’s tendency to veto such moves owing to its alliance with Syria will make that an immense diplo- matic challenge.

To complicate matters further, the Syrian regime is insisting that it be solely responsibl­e for delivering aid, which means rebel-held areas are unlikely to benefit.

As the government is also suspected of siphoning aid for the vulnerable into the hands of its elite, Western countries will be very reluctant to go along with this approach.

Aid workers are currently allowed to assist people in regime-controlled areas, but very rarely does it let them enter the north-west.

The regime, led by president Bashar al-assad, also claimed yesterday that Western sanctions imposed over allegation­s of war crimes in the civil war will hamper its own efforts to support the population.

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, said that Britain will give aid directly to the volunteer White Helmets in north-west Syria, as it has for many years, but it will require the cooperatio­n of Turkey.

Even then, experts say, the level of aid required is enormous. “For north western Syria, this earthquake represents a crisis within a crisis,” said 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.” 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 the Syrian government and Russian forces, must immediatel­y cease attacks on civilians and civilian infrastruc­ture, as well as indiscrimi­nate attacks in the region,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty’s deputy Middle East director.

She 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 task of rescuing Syrians buried under rubble continued yesterday as young children were pulled out of collapsed buildings and wrapped in blankets. Many had spent the entire night in pain in sub-zero temperatur­es.

In rebel-held Azaz, rescuers prised Raghad Ismail from her destroyed home. It was initially unclear whether the toddler, wearing pyjamas, had been seriously injured.

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

Some countries friendly with the Syrian government, such as Iran, have been sending aid directly to Damascus.

A plane from Tehran landed in the Syrian capital on Monday night with 70 tons of food, tents and medicine, with more expected to arrive in Aleppo and Latakia.

“People are driving bodies to us in their personal cars,” said Nehad Abdulmajee­d, a doctor at a hospital in Al Atarib, near Idlib, which has so far received the bodies of 137 earthquake victims.

“We have cried over children, who lived through this war and are now dead for no reason,” he said.

“I believed that maybe I had seen everything but these are the most tragic days that I have seen in my entire life,” he added.

The hospital where he works is dug deep undergroun­d to protect it from air strikes in the civil war.

‘After 12 years of brutal shelling this earthquake is a crisis within a crisis for north-western Syria’

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