Fri, Jan 22, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Covert network issuing air-raid alerts in Syria

WATCHING AIR BASES:Monitors watch for Russian planes taking off and listen to radio chatter to predict what area is to be bombed, giving people time to move

AFP, BEIRUT

Russian Air Force personnel stand under a warplane at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria on Wednesday.

Photo: AP

In Syria’s Latakia Province, Abu Mohammad sends a warning from his mobile phone to a secret network of colleagues: “Caution: A Russian plane just took off in your direction.”

Moments later, people in a rebel-held area in northwestern Syria sound warning sirens that prompt civilians to take cover before incoming air raids.

The message, sent via the mobile application WhatsApp, is part of an effort by a network of civilian and rebel coordinators across Syria who call themselves “the monitors.”

From positions near Syrian government-held military airports, they use messaging services or walkie-talkies — depending on Internet coverage — to warn activists, medics and rebels about incoming aerial attacks.

They track flight paths and try to decipher communication codes to warn them that Syrian or Russian military aircraft could be headed their way.

Fearing retribution from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “the monitors” would not divulge their names or locations.

Abu Mohammad agreed to speak to reporters using a pseudonym.

He said he is based near a Syrian army position in the regime stronghold of Latakia and describes dodging artillery and Russian reconnaissance drones to keep an eye on outgoing warplanes.

His job has become even more complicated since Sept. 30 last year, when long-time regime ally Russia began an air campaign in support of the government.

Russia operates military aircraft from Latakia’s seaside military airport of Hmeimim, where thousands of its troops are also based.

“I know when the plane takes off and as soon as it does, I tell people that a plane is coming towards them,” he said. “As soon as the news reaches people, they either hide in their bomb shelters, or some people hide in underground tunnels.”

Rights groups have regularly accused al-Assad’s regime of indiscriminate aerial bombardment of rebel-held territory since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

Russia has also been accused of causing civilian casualties in its strikes, though it denies the claims and says it is targeting the Islamic State group and other “terrorists.”

Another monitor in Latakia, Abu Omro, said he and his colleagues are loosely organized into units and the network is not affiliated with a specific rebel group.

“The idea is to protect people and rebels from the planes and the shelling... These monitors are really necessary,” he told reporters over WhatsApp, which is popular across the Middle East.

The monitors operate like a chain: When a Russian plane takes off from Hmeimim, the spotter warns counterparts in the provinces where the plane is heading, who in turn contact people there.

Activists who rely on the monitors say the warnings are essential.

In the central province of Homs, activist Hassaan Abu Nuh is on alert for messages about warplanes headed to his town of Talbisseh, which is regularly bombarded by Russian and Syrian government planes.

Even before the Russian campaign began, activists had begun trying to find ways to minimize casualties in airstrikes.

“When the regime began using warplanes and helicopters on cities, people started thinking of ways to warn civilians,” he told reporters via the Internet.

“After a lot of attempts at other things, they decided in the end to hook walkie-talkies up to the loudspeakers in the minarets of mosques,” he said.

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