Smoldering buildings, looted shops, smashed cars and a strong stench of death met UN observers who entered the nearly deserted Syrian town of al Hiffa, a day after 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 an assault by government forces was under way. 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, according to a spokeswoman for the UN mission.
"A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air," Sausan Ghosheh said on Thursday. She said there was still fighting in some pockets of the mountainous area in the seaside province of Latakia.
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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 got in.
Meanwhile, violence continued elsewhere in the country, with opposition activists saying more than 40 civilians and opposition fighters were killed on Thursday, alongside more than a half-dozen government forces.
From the day's early hours, Syrian troops bombarded rebel-held areas with tanks, mortars and helicopters in the central town of Rastan, the Damascus suburb of Douma, the central city of Homs and the northern towns of Anadan and Hreitan, near the Turkish border, according to activists.
Government institutions burnt
The UN observers' description of the smoldering ruins they found in al Hiffa suggested Syrian forces were using intense force to quell rebels. But it also indicated the rebels were determined to smash all symbols of the Assad regime they are seeking to overthrow, 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."
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The observers also found remnants of heavy weapons scattered through the town, but it was not clear who they belonged to.
"The town appeared deserted," Ghosheh said.
On Tuesday, the unarmed UN monitors were blocked from entering al Hiffa by a crowd of angry civilians, apparently by Assad supporters, who hurled rocks and sticks at the mission's vehicles.
But the Syrian government urged the observers to return after it announced on Wednesday that pro-Assad forces had "cleansed" al Hiffa of "armed terrorist groups".
The UN observers' visit to Hiffa came hours after a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives in a Damascus suburb, wounding 14 people and damaging one of Shia 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 15 metres away.
Believed to house the remains of the granddaughter of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, the shrine attracts tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims from around the world.
UN observers have reported a steep rise in violence and a dangerous shift in tactics by both sides in Syria in recent weeks.
Car bombings and suicide bombings have become increasingly common as the 15-month uprising against Assad becomes militarised. Most have targeted security buildings and police buses.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's accusation that Russia has "dramatically" escalated the crisis by sending attack helicopters to Syria lost some steam on Thursday when the State Department acknowledged the helicopters were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted, however, that the nuance meant little, even as she refused to explain why the department did not divulge the information earlier.
"Whether they are new or they are refurbished, the concern remains that they will be used for the exact same purpose that the current helicopters in Syria are being used, and that is to kill civilians," Nuland told reporters in Washington.
"When you look at the Soviet- and Russian-made helicopters that are in use in Syria today, every helicopter that is flying and working is attacking a new civilian location," she said. "So the concern is when you add three more freshly refurbished helicopters to the fight, that is three more that can be used to kill civilians."