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A rare trip through Hizbullah's secret tunnel network

Monitor reporter Nicholas Blanford provides an exclusive view inside one of the militant Shiite group's wartime hideouts.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2007

RSHAF, Lebanon

After scrabbling up a slope in this desolate valley amid Lebanon's craggy southern hills, I found it: an ominous pitch-black hole partially blocked by a layer of rock.

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It would be a tight squeeze to get in. And going farther was potentially risky.

Our discovery was so rare and revealing that it could have been booby-trapped with explosives. I checked for tripwire, but didn't see any.

"Found it. It's open. We can get in," I called to my two colleagues, laboring up the hill.

We were about to enter the secret world of Hizbullah, the militant Shiite group that battled Israel from this perch, and dozens of other hidden positions, last summer. We weren't sure what we'd find below, but were certain it would tell us a great deal about the capabilities of the Lebanese guerrillas that fought from these steep limestone hills covered in a dense undergrowth of scrub oak and juniper bushes.

Pausing to catch my breath, I shrugged off my backpack and reached inside for a head lamp.

As we climbed in, air chilled by the deep subterranean passageways wafted out of the entrance, a refreshing contrast to the blazing heat of the valley.

Bunker hunting

I had been hunting for one of Hizbullah's bunkers since the end of the 34-day war.

It had been a frustrating exercise, to be sure. The bunkers and rocket-firing positions had been constructed in great secrecy, the entrances cunningly camouflaged, in remote valleys along the Lebanon-Israeli border.

In addition to possible booby traps, cluster bombs, and other unexploded ordnance litter many of Hizbullah's abandoned "security zones" in valleys and hilltops along the border.

In March, I was fortunate enough to have received map coordinates from a source that led me to a bunker, which could be accessed by a 20-foot shaft.

A second series of map coordinates, which I tapped into a global-positioning system (GPS) device, led us to this spot about two miles north of the Israeli border near Rshaf, earlier this week.

As we followed the arrow on the GPS, we could hear the whine of an Israeli reconnaissance drone, invisible against the brilliant blue sky, as it slowly circled high above us. It was probably searching for signs of new Hizbullah activity.

Going in

Shining my head lamp into the entrance, I could see that the pile of boulders only ran for a few feet, after which the opening widened into a passageway.

The walls and ceiling were reinforced with steel plates and girders painted black to prevent stray reflections from the sun giving away the concealed entrance.

As I crawled in the tunnel, I watched carefully for scorpions and spiders. The passage ran horizontally for about 10 yards before doglegging to the right.

It was little more than shoulder-width, and we had to stoop slightly to avoid hitting the ceiling with our heads. Once around the corner, the steel plates were painted white, this time to better reflect the electric lighting.

Electric cables ran through white plastic tubes, fixed to the walls, leading to switches and glass-encased light sockets. A blue plastic hose running along the top of the wall carried the bunker's water supply.

The first room we encountered was a small bathroom complete with an Arab-style latrine, a shower, a basin with taps, and a hot water boiler. There was even a drainage system constructed beneath the concrete floor.