Smoldering buildings, looted shops, smashed cars and a strong stench of death greeted UN observers who entered the nearly deserted Syrian town of Haffa a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces overran it as part of a major offensive to recover rebel-controlled territories.
The monitors had been trying to get into the town for a week after fears were raised that a brutal assault by regime forces was under way. On Thursday, they found the main hospital burned, state buildings and an office of the ruling Baath Party in ruins and a corpse lying in the street.
“A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air,” the UN observers’ spokesperson Sausan Ghosheh said, adding that there was still fighting in some pockets of the mountainous town in the seaside province of Latakia.
The number of casualties was unclear, Ghosheh said, and it appeared likely that, as in the past, bodies had been removed or buried before the UN mission arrived.
The siege of Haffa, a Sunni--populated village, had become a focus of international concern because of fears the uprising against al-Assad is evolving into a sectarian civil war pitting his minority Alawite sect against the majority Sunnis and other groups. Recent mass killings in other Sunni-populated areas have fed those concerns.
For more than a week, Syrian troops have been sweeping through villages and towns in Syria’s northern, central, southern and seaside provinces, attacking rebel-held areas and opposition strongholds in what appears to be the largest offensive since an internationally-brokered cease-fire went into effect two months ago. The regime and the opposition have both largely ignored the April 12 truce.
The UN observers’ description of the smoldering ruins they found in Haffa suggested Syrian forces are using intense force to quell rebels, but it also indicated the rebels were determined to smash all symbols of the hated al-Assad regime, including state institutions.
“Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside,” Ghosheh said in a statement. “Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire.”
She said homes were broken into, while the ruling Baath Party headquarters was shelled, “and appeared to be the scene of heavy fighting.” The observers also found remnants of heavy weapons scattered through the town; it was not clear who they belonged to.
“The town appeared deserted,” she said.
On Tuesday, the unarmed UN monitors were prevented from entering Haffa by a crowd of angry civilians, apparently residents of nearby Alawite villages, who hurled rocks and sticks at the mission’s vehicles.
However, the Syrian government urged the observers to return after it announced on Wednesday that pro-al-Assad forces had “cleansed” Haffa of “armed terrorist groups” — the regime’s term for rebel fighters.
The UN observers’ visit to Haffa came hours after a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives in a Damascus suburb, wounding 14 people and damaging one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, according to witnesses and Syria’s state-run news agency.
It was not immediately clear whether the bomber intended to target the golden-domed Sayyida Zainab complex or a police station 15m away. Believed to house the remains of the granddaughter of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, the shrine attracts tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world.