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Rebels leave behind labyrinth of tunnels under Syria's Ghouta Open in fullscreen

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Rebels leave behind labyrinth of tunnels under Syria's Ghouta

The tunnels included hospitals (Getty)

Date of publication: 3 April, 2018

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Rebels leave behind an advanced tunnel system as evacuations from East Ghouta continue.
Tunnels stretch into the darkness, some wide enough to drive a car through. In Eastern Ghouta, Syrian rebels left behind an underground labyrinth, fitted with hospitals and military headquarters.

"This network of tunnels is a real spider's web," said a Syrian army official who escorted journalists on a visit Monday to areas of the Damascus suburb recaptured from the rebels.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces have recaptured 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since launching a blistering air and ground assault six weeks ago on the besieged enclave, imposing evacuation agreements on rebel groups.

In the capital's Jobar district, an entrance to the underground network lies in the basement of a school converted into military headquarters by the group Faylaq al-Rahman.

The tunnels are dug about 15 metres (50 feet) deep. The walls are reinforced with metal rods and the tunnels are equipped with surveillance cameras and lights.

Some corridors are wide enough to drive a car through, while others can only be accessed on foot.

The network is about five kilometres (three miles) long, connecting Jobar with the rebel-held areas of Ain Tarma and Zamalka.

On Saturday, the army took full control of the area following a Russian-brokered evacuation deal which saw thousands of fighters and civilians bussed out of Ghouta.

In talks leading up to the deal, Russia, the Syrian regime's ally, demanded that the rebels hand over the plans of the tunnel network.

With rebel-held Eastern Ghouta under government siege since 2013, tunnels were used to smuggle food, medicine and fuel into the area.

In 2017, government troops tightened the siege, destroying many tunnels. Jobar's network, however, survived.

Pile of suitcases

Before February 18, some 400,000 people in Eastern Ghouta had lived under regime siege for five years, facing severe food and medicine shortages.

After pounding it with air strikes, regime forces have taken back most of the enclave through a combination of ground assaults and Russia-brokered evacuation deals.

In the past few weeks, these deals have seen more than 46,000 people - fighters and civilians - board buses with scant belongings to be driven to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is largely outside government control.

These include more than 1,000 people - fighters from another faction, Faylaq al-Rahman, and family members - who left Douma late Sunday, according to state media.

On Monday before dawn, an AFP correspondent saw men, women and children step off buses in the area of Qalaat al-Madiq in central Hama province, a way station on the road to Idlib.

An old woman dressed head-to-toe in black stood by a pile of suitcases, with a child wearing a winter coat and colourful backpack by her side.

A man had a gun slung on his shoulder as he picked up a travel bag, while a young boy, who appeared weak and unable to move his limbs, was carried into an ambulance.

A man in a long white robe walked on crutches, a light weapon visible under his khaki jacket.

Syria's war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with a brutal repression of anti-regime protests.

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