UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Tunnels of hundreds of meters reach rock-cut caves to form an extensive network used by opposition factions based near the Syrian town of Lantana, the Syrian army and its Russian allies say.
On the sidelines of a tour organized by the Russian army for journalists, the AFP team went down to the tunnels and caves network, one kilometer from the town of Lantana in the northern countryside of Hama, which was seized by government forces last August.
On both sides of the road leading to the entrance to the tunnels dug under a rocky mountain, the structures of military vehicles and burned-out or destroyed vehicles continued to be witness to the fierce fighting that has been going on in the area for many weeks.
The Russian military is likely that the network was able to accommodate about 5,000 people.
“We believe that the network was dug about four years ago using sophisticated mechanisms of a type not available in Syria,” a Syrian army commander told reporters.
The commander, who is traveling with journalists on the network with Russian demining experts, said the fighters “who fought here withdrew northward, beginning to Khan Sheikhoun” before moving further after government forces took control of the city in the southern countryside of Idlib.
Inside a cave, the banner of the opposition Jaish al-Izzat faction, which was active in northern Hama, still hangs on a wall.
Following a military operation that began at the end of April, Syrian regime forces with Russian support took control last month of several towns and villages in northern Hama and the southern countryside of Idlib. After weeks of heavy shelling in which hundreds of civilians have been killed, a truce agreement has been in effect since the end of August.
Idlib province and its environs are covered by an agreement signed by Russia and Turkey in Sochi in September 2018 that provided for the establishment of a demilitarized zone separating the positions of control of the regime forces and the factions, from which jihadist groups would withdraw. However, its implementation has not been completed.
Damascus accuses Ankara of dragging its feet on implementing the agreement, and has repeatedly vowed to restore full Idlib.
– Drones Network –
Although they span hundreds of meters, the tunnels seemed very narrow in some areas, but they linked several rooms dug in the rock, one devoted to prayer, the other a prison and a third used as a workshop to make drones, according to Russian and Syrian military.
The entire area of the network has not yet been determined, but government and Russian forces found ammunition and weapons left behind by the factions.
Military officials believe that the network was also used by jihadi factions headed by HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), which controls most of Idlib province and its environs.
The tunnels and caves were a haven for fighters to protect them from the fierce shelling of Syrian and Russian warplanes.
The tunnels and caves are testimony to the days of the fighters, where empty plastic water cans, food cans and even clothes are common. One room is equipped with a TV and electric lighting strips.
About 400 meters (yards) from the entrance to the network, a France correspondent saw blood stains on the ground and locked cells with rusted iron doors that Syrian military believed were a prison.
The Russian army has so far found ten underground tunnels in northwestern Syria and another in the region of Palmyra, which was controlled by ISIS, in the center of the country.
Military officials believe the Latamina network was one of the main drone-making workshops used by opposition factions to launch attacks on regime forces or the Russian air base at Hmeimim in western Latakia.
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