Syrian opposition groups fail to capture Aleppo prison

Contrary to media reports, opposition gunmen failed to capture the Aleppo Central Prison.

al-monitor The Aleppo Central Prison during clashes between pro-Syrian regime soldiers and rebel fighters, Feb. 6, 2014.  Photo by ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images.

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syrian opposition, syrian army, prisons, jabhat al-nusra, aleppo

Feb 7, 2014

Contrary to media reports about the Aleppo Central Prison falling into the hands of gunmen from the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, who had declared the start of a battle to “liberate the prison,” a source inside the prison told As-Safir that the attack on the prison was the heaviest so far but that the prison didn’t fall.

The source said that the prison was attacked from three sides. It began when a truck laden with more than 20 tons of explosives and driven by a suicide bomber tried to approach the prison. Prison security men saw the truck coming and hit it with RPG rounds. The truck exploded about a hundred meters from the prison’s door. “The intensity of the blast destroyed the headquarters of the prison protection unit, killing two officers and wounding 10 unit members,” the source said.

The source added, “After the truck explosion, there was a violent attack by three tanks that targeted the first and second prison towers with about 15 shells, killing five prisoners and injuring 10. … In conjunction with the tank attack, attackers opened fire with heavy machine guns at the prison from six different points, leading to severe damage to the prison building.”

After about two hours from the start of battle, which began at about 10 a.m., gunmen managed to get close to the prison entrance, where violent clashes took place. The source explained, “Afterward, warplanes intervened and targeted the rear lines of the attackers while prison security elements repelled the attack from the inside, which put the [attackers] in a pincer, where violent clashes took place and lasted till 4 p.m. Afterward, the attackers pulled back from all axes and the attack stopped.”

From the attackers’ side, a jihadist paper announced the killing of Saifullah al-Chichani, who led the unit that stormed the prison. The number of dead and wounded among the attackers is not yet accurately known because the attackers failed to declare the full results of the attack.

Another leader in the Aleppo prison battle was Muslim al-Chichani, the emir of Junud al-Sham, which consists entirely of Chechens and is based in the north Latakia countryside. Muslim al-Chichani is considered one of the most prominent military minds among the leaders of the Islamist brigades and factions due to his previous experience in both Afghanistan and the Caucasus.

Saifullah al-Chichani, whose real name is Rislan Mashalikashvili, fought in Chechnya, where he was injured. He left Chechnya for treatment but could not return. He thought of going to Iraq but didn’t find a way to do that. So he went to Afghanistan in 2005, where he fought US forces and stayed in the Kabylie region for a while.

When the Syrian crisis started, he decided to go to Syria and contribute to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. In Syria, he led the Army of the Caliphate, which consisted of about 500 Chechen fighters. At the end of 2013, Saifullah pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra and declared that he and all his fighters and weapons were joining. He participated in many battles in Syria, the most important of which was the battle to control the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Said and the battle of al-Kindi hospital. It is noteworthy that Saifullah was a close friend of Dokka Umarov, the emir of the Caucasus emirate.

After the attack on the prison stopped, the Syrian army fired artillery rounds toward the area where the retreating gunmen were concentrated. That may have increased their casualties, according to the same source.

Most media picked up news of the fall of the Aleppo Central Prison, while “activists” went even further and talked of operations to transfer the prisoners out and empty the prison. But the source denied that and asserted that the media either didn’t know what happened on the battlefield or tried to galvanize the fighters on the other battlefronts.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement, “The attackers took control of 80% of the Aleppo Central Prison and were able to release hundreds of prisoners.”

This is not the only time that the media have been “deceived” regarding Aleppo prison, which lies about seven kilometers north of the city of Aleppo and raises the Syrian flag. Last November, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted a story about the fall of the prison, adding that Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Front gunmen managed to enter the prison. But the story turned out to be incorrect.

Aleppo Central Prison, which was built in the 1960s, includes about 3,500 prisoners following the Syrian Red Crescent's removal of about 700 prisoners over the past months. The prison has about a hundred women, with them 10 children, some born inside the prison. And the prison also has so-called delinquent prisoners, numbering 370, between the ages of 15 and 18 years. The prison also has about 80 Islamic political prisoners, arrested many years ago.

In a statement, the Islamic factions declared “launching a military campaign against the Syrian forces in Aleppo.” The Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra had announced launching the battle in Aleppo and called “all those present in the outposts to go to the battlefronts or you will be questioned and held accountable. … [We ask] our people in the occupied territories [areas controlled by the Syrian forces] to stay away from the checkpoints and military headquarters of the rafidi [Alawite] militia because we will target them in 24 hours.”

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