Islamic State tunnels under al-Bab point to hard fighting ahead

AL-BAB, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian rebels who drove Islamic State from the town of al-Bab in northwest Syria this year discovered an extensive network of tunnels dug by militants as part of their defenses, a tactic that has slowed the military campaign against them.

"The tunnels complicated the fighting a lot and stopped our advance for weeks," said Mohammed Abu Yousef, a rebel in a group fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army as part of a Turkey-backed military campaign in north Syria.

FSA rebels in al-Bab said they had found about 9 miles of tunnels under the town that had linked its central areas and jihadist headquarter buildings with the town's fringes and battle fronts.

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Islamic State tunnel system
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Islamic State tunnel system
Rebel fighters inspect a tunnel they said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A rebel fighter sits at the entrance to a tunnel he said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A rebel fighter inspects a tunnel he said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connected two headquarter buildings, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A rebel fighter stands amidst rubble at the entrance to a tunnel he said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Rebel fighters stand amidst rubble at the entrance to a tunnel they said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Rebel fighters walk through a tunnel they said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Rebel fighters walk through a tunnel they said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connects the city to Aqeel mountain, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Rebel fighters inspect a tunnel they said belonged to Islamic State fighters which connected two headquarter buildings in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A rebel fighter inspects a wall inside a prison near the entrance to a tunnel he said belonged to Islamic State fighters in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. The text on the wall reads in Arabic: "The Caliphate state will remain, if God wills". REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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Islamic State has been steadily forced from much of its Syrian territory since late 2015. It has lost all its land along the border with Turkey as well as the desert city of Palmyra as it is repelled into its strongholds along the Euphrates basin.

It is under assault from three rival forces: FSA rebels backed by Turkey, Syria's army supported by Russia, Iran and Shi'ite militias, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella for Kurdish-led groups supported by a U.S.-led coalition.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State described the militants' use of tunnels in several different cities as "a challenge for our partner forces" and meant to allow them to "move undetected".

In one tunnel, a little over a meter (yard) wide and high enough to allow a man to stand upright, the walls and ceiling were covered with chicken wire and an electrical cable ran above with light bulbs occasionally dangling down.

AMBUSH

The fighting to take al-Bab lasted for weeks in January and February, costing many lives as Turkish jets and armor pummeled Islamic State positions in the town and FSA groups tried to capture ground.

Evidence of the battle can be seen in its rubble-strewn streets. In one district, houses were partially collapsed from fighting and bombardment and the large aluminum water tank from a building's roof lay on its side, dotted with bullet holes.

"When we entered an area and ensured it was clear of Daesh fighters they would suddenly appear behind us using the tunnels and they killed a lot of our people by outflanking them this way," said Abu Yousef, using an acronym for Islamic State.

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Destroyed homes with views of war after air strikes in Syria
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Destroyed homes with views of war after air strikes in Syria
People inspect a damaged building after strikes yesterday on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Children play near a damaged building in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
An injured girl reacts at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Boys play near rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man stands next to a cow seen through a hole in the wall prior to Eid al-Adha celebrations in the rebel held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man reacts at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria July 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Civil defence members rest amidst rubble in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A solar panel is placed on rubble along a street in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A boy inspects a damaged house in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A youth inspects a damaged kitchen after strikes yesterday on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Residents inspect damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A girl runs past a damaged site after an airstrike in the besieged rebel-held town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A girl inspects damage in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man salvages belongings at a site hit yesterday by airstrikes in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man transports on a bicycle tree branches to be be placed on the graves of his relatives, on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A picture is hung on a wall inside a damaged house in the rebel-controlled area of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria April 11, 2016. Picture taken April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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His fellow rebels infiltrated some of the tunnels themselves to ambush the jihadists and blew up others to prevent them being used, he said.

Some of the tunnels came out inside buildings in the town, including one that residents told rebels had previously been used by Islamic State for a prison.

Abu Yousef said residents told rebels that the tunnels were dug using pneumatic drills over a period of months. Inside some tunnels were ventilation shafts and rest points with mattresses and bedding.

At a high point overlooking al Bab, a narrow gash in the ground revealed the sloped opening to a tunnel near pitted concrete pillars of a damaged building from which hung slabs of roof, with twisted steel rebars poking out from the sides.

(Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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