The Syrian military in the past month planted a band of anti-personnel mines along stretches of the border with Turkey, where last year more than 10,000 Syrian refugees fled the Assad regime's crackdown on the pro-democracy "Arab Spring" uprising, Syrian witnesses said.
After a family of five were reported severely injured in a new minefield last month, Syrian civilians, operating with primitive means — an axe, a rope and the guidance of a volunteer who'd had mine- clearance training in military service — unearthed hundreds of those mines and reopened the way to safety, volunteers said.
The mines were Russian made PMN-2 pressure mines. They consist of a green plastic casing and a black cruciform-like pressure plate, which detonates the charge inside. They were laid about a foot apart in two bands that were set about two feet apart, just three or four yards from the fence that demarcates the border with Turkey, according to the volunteer who directed the mine-clearance operation.
Tall and slight of frame, the volunteer, 28, who gave himself the nom de guerre, Rajol al Hadidi, ("Iron Man"), left Syria one week ago carrying more than a dozen mines. He crossed into Turkey to seek the advice of military defectors in the Free Syrian Army on how to defuse the mines.
"I know 10 sorts of mines - anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines, but not this one," he told McClatchy. ""We didn't know what explosive material was contained in it, but we thought it would create a crater of 3 or 4 meters (10 feet)," he said.
But they were not able to advise him. In a meeting about one-half mile from the Syrian border, Hadidi allowed a McClatchy reporter to photograph one mine — still fused — that he had removed from the new minefied.
Some mine experts consulted by McClatchy said there is no way to defuse the PMN-2 other than to detonate it with a small explosive charge. British mines expert Andy Smith told McClatchy the PMN-2 is one of the most common mines in the world, costing as little as $10 each. He said they usually maim and cause loss of limbs but rarely kill unless the victim is unable to reach a medical facility within hours. He said Syria most likely has a stockpile, provided either by Russia or the former Soviet Union. Turkish mine experts said the Soviet-built mines have never been in the Turkish inventory.
Hadidi said he removed the first mine, using a technique he had learned in the military - placing the blade of an axe in front of the mine, attaching a 70-foot rope, and tugging at the axe to ease the mine out of the ground. When he saw that moving the mine did not detonate it, he trained four other civilian volunteers in mine removal, and together they lifted an estimated 300 mines, he said.
The Syrian military had planted the mines in early to mid-February in olive groves for over a mile along the border in the vicinity of Jisr al Shughur, Hadidi said. It was through this area that at least 10,000 residents of the town fled to Turkey last year, fearing an all-out onslaught by the government of President Bashar al Assad.
In addition, mines were also planted about 12 miles to the north, in Guvecci, according to Syrian army defector Tamar Fizo, who witnessed the mine-laying. This was a secondary crossing point for refugees fleeing Assad's Syria into Turkey, but is no more.
"We saw soldiers getting off trucks or armored cars and planting mines 20 meters (70 feet) from the border," he told McClatchy. The night after the minefield was laid, a wild boar detonated one and died, he said.
In 1980, Hafez al Assad, father of the current president, had targeted Jisr al Shughur for a devastating crackdown to demonstrate that that the secular Baath party, which has ruled Syria for decades, would not tolerate a political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. (He made a similar better-known assault against the city of Hama in 1982.) That's according to Ghawzan Issa, one of the elected representatives of the Jisr diaspora now housed in Turkish government refugee camps.
Syria and Turkey both mined their common border during the Cold War era, but starting several years ago both began to remove mines as part of a drive by Turkey to improve relations with all its neighbors. There were reports in November of the Syrian army laying mines along the Turkish and Lebanese borders, and injuries have been reported among refugees fleeing to Lebanon.
Several months ago, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Syrian official as saying the aim of the mines being laid then was to prevent armed insurgents from crossing into Syria.
Mustafa Haid, a Syrian anti-government activist familiar with the mining issue, said the mines were intended to prevent refugees from escaping. The drive to flee Syria has taken on new drama following the military's destruction last week of a whole section of Homs, where armed insurgents had taken control, and a new drive against villages near Jebel Al Zawieh, in the vicinity of Idlib, in northern Syria, which began on Saturday.
In Guvecci and many other towns along the border, bombing of the villages around Idlib could be heard from about midnight until 10 a.m. Sunday morning, Fizo and other villagers said. "This was clearly done in advance of the Idlib operation in order to try and prevent Syrians from fleeing to Turkey," Haid said.
Although 235 Syrians escaped into Turkey Thursday night and early Friday, relatively few managed to cross the border Friday or Saturday night, anti-government activists said.
Hadidi said that the military informed those residents of Jisr who hadn't already fled that if they needed to go to the border area to tend their fields, they should approach the military first. He said it was the report of severe injuries to a family of five, from the village of Salma, near Latakia, about two weeks ago, that led him to volunteer to remove the mines. They were blown up trying to cross near the village of Al Hamboushieh, near Bdaama, according to locals familiar with the tragedy.
"You could see the disturbed earth. They were somewhat exposed," said Hadidi.
(Special correspondents Gul Tuysuz and Rami Suleiman contributed from Antakya, Turkey, and David Enders from Beirut, Lebanon)