LATAKIA, Syria, May 27 (Xinhua) -- They withstood heavy shelling and several suicide bombings for almost a month, but when they heard the drilling sound beneath them, hundreds of soldiers realized that it was about time to make an escape from their last facility in a northwestern city before the rebels could detonate a network of booby-trapped tunnels under them.
"We decided to withdraw from the National Hospital when we realized that the militants were digging tunnels beneath the hospital to blow it up. We used to hear the drilling sounds almost on daily basis and each day the sound would be heard under different rooms in what appeared to be the militants moving forward in their drilling," Ali, a Syrian soldier told Xinhua at the military hospital of Latakia city, where most of the Syrian soldiers who succeeded to withdraw from the National Hospital of the rebel-held Jisr al-Shughour city were taken.
Ali said the militants told them to surrender almost every day during the month-long siege "but we paid no heed to their warnings and threats."
"However when we heard the digging, we knew that we could do nothing about it and that we had to leave because we would either be killed in a possible blast or buried under the rubble," he said.
Escaping the National Hospital of Jisr al-Shughour city in the countryside of the northwestern province of Idlib was nearly impossible, as the facility was under siege from all directions by the militants, after the downfall of the entire city in April. The al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and likeminded groups hadn't spared a chance to storm the facility and capture the soldiers and officers inside, either by heavy shelling, or sending suicide car bombers to rip through the gates.
But their attempts were rendered flat due to the strong fortification of the hospital and the good amount of ammunition the soldiers stored inside.
Between 450 and 500 soldiers and civilians were holed up in that hospital, which was subject to heavy shelling and explosions.
On May 22, the official Syrian TV said the Syrian army unit inside the hospital broke the month-long rebel siege, managing to secure a way out for tens of trapped soldiers to reach the nearest military point in Idlib under heavy fire cover by the Syrian air force and artillery.
The soldiers who reached the military points in Idlib were later taken to the military hospital of the coastal city of Latakia.
"Our mission to withdraw from the hospital was extremely difficult as we had to leave at 8 am with the armed militants everywhere around us from all directions," Ali recounted, saying he was among the first group leaving the hospital, as the army unit there decided to split as part of a military tactic.
"The armed militants spotted us and started shooting at us, injuring and killing many of our comrades," said the solider, who received a gunshot in his hand while he was retreating.
Ali said he and his comrades tried their best to maintain a high spirit when they were under siege, or even when the withdrawal operation started.
"I won't lie to you and say that our spirits were always high. Sometimes we feel stressed out... but we would always try to create a positive atmosphere, so we used to sing and dance as if we were at home."
However, the young soldier said his hope faded when a bullet pierced through his arm during the hours-long withdrawal.
"I was always hopeful that I would make it out and reach the military, but when I was shot in the hand, my hope is fading because I could no longer be able to use my rifle... any militant could have killed me," he said.
"When we got close to the military points, our comrades started covering us by shooting at the militants until my group could make it to the military post. We have reached the military position and it was like a new life has started," Ali said, wrapping us his story.
Laying down on a hospital bed with bandages, Haidar, another solider, told Xinhua that the majority of the militants who were attempting to attack the hospital were foreigners.
"Throughout the month-long siege, the terrorist groups were using all kinds of weapons, car bombs and artillery against us on daily basis. The majority of the militants were foreigners; Turks, Afghans, or Chechens... So these foreign groups were fighting, shelling us, and attempt to storm the hospital," he said.
He recounted how the Syrian soldiers would react when the rebels would send a booby-trapped vehicle to blow up the hospital.
"When we would hear the booby-trapped cars approaching, our marksmen would target the vehicles with RPGs and to confront any attempt of infiltration," he said.
Haidar said women and children were kept in the bottom floor of the hospital for their safety, adding that the food situation in the hospital was okay as they had supplies and Syrian aircrafts also made several air drops of food and weapons to the besieged soldiers in the hospital.
"We had food supplies in the hospital but we suffered a scarcity of drinking water and that was mostly difficult for children...," he said.
When the withdrawal moment inched closer, Haidar said the soldiers started encouraging one another.
"Our spirits were high and we used to encourage one another. We were fighting so that our lives won't be wasted in vain without doing something valuable for our homeland."
"We divided into several groups, the first was the road protection team, and the second was the civilian protection we fanned out in the orchards and fields and we provided a heavy fire cover to save the civilians and children who were among us," Haidar spoke of the battles of withdrawal.
"Our clashes in the fields and orchards were similar to those we were fighting in the hospital except the fact that the firing was so heavy and the clashes sometimes took place within short ranges. Sometimes the confrontations was taking place within less than a meter between the soldiers and the militants and they took us very long hours," Haidar said,
He recounted that he had received multiple gunshots in his hand, thigh and waist during the withdrawal process.
"But I was always thinking of hope, of victory, and of reaching the military point."
Qassem, another wounded soldier in Latakia's military hospital told Xinhua the battles of withdrawal were so tense and the direct confrontation lasted for a whole 13 hours.
"After we left the hospital, we took shelter in nearby buildings before we spilt into groups and started to make our way out... we didn't think we could reach the military posts... It was an impossible operation because it happened in broad day light," Qassem recounted.
The withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Jisr al-Shughour hospital has a special importance because President Bashar al-Assad vowed to help his troops out of there.
The oppositional Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the soldiers managed to escape, but many of them died.
It said as many as 261 Syrian soldiers have been killed since the al-Qaida-linked militants unleashed their wide-scale offensive on the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province a month ago.
Ninety of those killed during the attacks of the Nusra Front and likeminded groups were officers, it added.
The UK-based watchdog group said the death toll include all those killed between April 22 and May 23, the day when tens of government forces managed to escape the National Hospital of Jisr al-Shughour, the last military position in that key city near the Turkish borders.
After the Syrian soldiers made their escape on May 22, the Nusra militants stormed the National Hospital, completing their control over the entire city of Jisr al-Shughour in the countryside of Idlib province, much of which fell to the Nusra and likeminded groups over the past two months.