Middle East

Syria rebels in blasted bunkers on Byzantine ruins

Children play on a destroyed tank belonging to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Azaz, in northern Syria near the border with Turkey, October 8, 2012. REUTERS/Zain Karam (SYRIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT SOCIETY)

DARET EZZA, Syria: The rebel-held communications centre at Daret Ezza in northwest Syria is an archaeologist's worst nightmare, consisting of machine-gunned and burnt-out concrete bunkers perched atop ancient Byzantine ruins.

President Bashar al-Assad's army held the strategic telecoms station until it was captured by rebels, who use the position to scour the skies for regime helicopters and warplanes coming to bombard targets in the region.

Three months ago Free Syrian Army fighters took the position at the summit of a rocky mountain range 28 kilometres (17 miles) from Aleppo which offers a clear view from the Turkish border all the way to the crucial northern metropolis.

Thanks to information from two defecting Syrian soldiers, the heavily defended outpost fell within a few hours, with rebels losing four "martyrs" but killing 60 troops, says Ahmad, an Al-Faruq Brigade fighter who took part in the assault.

"Dushka (heavy Russian-made) machineguns had been set up" among the ruins of 10 Byzantine towers, he says, pointing at the circular collections of large stone blocks covered in rubble and blackened by flames.

Next to nothing now remains of the ancient Byzantine citadel at the mountain summit. Imposing white stone monoliths barely blemished by centuries of wear now serve as the foundation for hideous concrete bunkers.

Small ancient fortresses, some of which contain the entrances to underground tunnels previously shut to visitors, have been burned out. A rectangular building has collapsed in on itself from the blast of an explosion.

A twisted metal frame is all that remains of another building. An unexploded bomb the size of a fridge that has fallen from the sky sits on a low wall. It has been defused.

Blacked-out carcasses of Russian-made military trucks and destroyed radar stations also bear witness to the ferocity of the fighting.

The enormous satellite dishes have disappeared, probably removed by rebels to set up makeshift communications systems.

The Daret Ezza post, nearly 12 kilometres from the Turkish border, was an army observation and listening station supported by Russian technicians, some rebels claim. There is of course no longer any trace of the Russians.

Below the post, a mobile phone mast has miraculously survived the destruction and appears to be still working.

The rebels shelter at night from the wind in the bunkers, which lead underground, coming out during the day to monitor the skies through binoculars, informing their commanders of every aircraft that passes overhead.

The Syrian army has lost its control over most of the region, now holding only two garrisons both of which are surrounded by rebels.

One is at Atareb, 12 kilometres west of Aleppo, and another is at Sheikh Suleiman, 25 kilometres to the northwest.

The capture of the two remaining regime bastions, which rebels say is imminent, will enable the almost total "liberation" of the northwestern region that runs the length of the border with Turkey.





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