By Khalil Ashawi
MAREA, Syria (Reuters) - Ahmad Najjar stands in the middle of an Islamic State minefield in northern Syria holding torn camouflage rags that he said were from the clothing of a colleague recently blown up while dismantling explosives planted by the militant group.
Najjar, a 27 year-old Free Syrian Army fighter from the rebel-held town of Marea, risks his life every day to clear mines planted in roads and fields by Islamic State last summer when they briefly surrounded his hometown.
During Syria's almost six year-long war, Najjar gave up his university studies in Aleppo and joined rebels defending Marea, a town which has at various times been a frontline between Islamic State, rebel and Kurdish forces.
"When Daesh's attack on Marea began, a young guy called Qasura, who was a mines specialist, began to teach me intensively. I helped him uproot planted mines," Najjar said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
When Qasura was killed by a mine, Najjar decided to continue his work.
"Daesh is highly skilled in laying mines and we need someone who is a match for them to remove their mines," he said.
Islamic State has frequently planted thousands of mines and booby-trapped buildings in towns that its fighters are driven out of. Government forces say they too have cleared explosives from areas previously under rebel control.
Najjar said he had so far disposed of about 4,500 mines of all types around Marea and other villages in the north Aleppo countryside. In total, his colleagues have removed about 10,000, he said.
Najjar's team does not have maps of where mines were laid outside Marea. Working alongside a group of young men from the town, Najjar thinks it will take three years to clear them all.
Exploding mines have claimed several of his close friends' lives and badly maimed others, he said.
Najjar plans to resume his studies once the war is over. But before that, he wants the international community to provide protective clothing and machines that can detect plastic explosives.
"Many organizations have offered us their support on the condition that we leave our (rebel) faction," he said, explaining those bodies were worried demining equipment could be used for other military activities. "But we cannot leave our group," he said.
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Richard Lough)