The fate of thousands of Isis suspects held in Syrian camps is increasingly in the balance after Kurdish forces announced that guarding them would no longer be a priority.
As Turkish forces continued to battle south for a third consecutive day, a senior commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed that Kurdish troops guarding the Isis suspects would likely be redeployed to the frontline soon.
“The protection of Isis prisons will not remain our priority,” said an SDF commander during a press conference on Saturday. “The defence of our soil will be prioritised if [the] Turkish military continues its attacks.”
The development raises the likelihood of breakouts from prisons that are already considered by western officials to be understaffed and volatile.
As Turkish fighters attempted to reach the strategic M4 highway linking the main cities of the north, reports emerged from the Rojava Information Centre, a Kurdish media collective, that attempts to target prisons may have already begun.
Officials said that a car bomb had detonated outside an Isis prison called Ghuwairan on Friday night near the city of Hasakah. During the same night reports also emerged that five Isis fighters had escaped from Navkur prison in nearby Qamishli during chaos triggered by a Turkish airstrike.
Intelligence obtained by Kurdish forces in northern Syria has confirmed that Isis sleeper cells and suicide bombers are operating in the region with the primary intention of targeting prisons in a bid to liberate former fighters.
Last month Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, urged his followers to start freeing jihadists and their wives and children from detention camps in Iraq and Syria.
Since the Turkish invasion began, the west has been concerned with what happens to the huge pool of Isis prisoners, as security crumbles under the ongoing offensive.
Before the fighting began, SDF forces operated a network of camps that held as many as 100,000 suspected Isis members and their wives, including scores of British nationals.
About 12,000 suspected Isis fighters – a third of them foreign nationals – are detained in seven prisons further south close to the city of Raqqa, where reports of a series of attacks emerged shortly after Turkey invaded.
To the south-east, disorder including an escape attempt has already been reported in the huge al-Hawl displacement camp where 70,000 women and children, including tens of thousands of family members of Isis fighters, are being held in chaotic conditions.
Figures from the Rojava Information Centre on Saturday said 45 civilians had been killed as a result of Turkish artillery bombardment, with another 85 injured.
A spokesman said: “The number of casualties may be higher since our team is unable to reach many of the targeted sites because of the Turkish warplanes and artillery, as well as the indiscriminate firing.”