By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Deserted streets, scorched buildings, the stench of death — that was the now-familiar state of affairs that United Nations observers found Thursday in Syria’s battered western highland town of Haffah, which the state-run media declared had been “cleansed” of “terrorists” this week.
U.N. personnel were finally able to enter the desolate town after more than a week of heavy combat as government troops sought to oust rebels ensconced there. Insurgent forces, commonly referred to by the government and its media as “terrorists,” say they pulled back, and on Wednesday officials declared that “security and calm” had been restored.
The scene was darkly reminiscent of other former rebel enclaves that Syrian forces had managed to overrun after protracted shelling and clashes, from battered urban neighborhoods such as Homs’ Bab Amro district to rubble-strewn hamlets such as Mazraat al-Kabir, west of the city of Hama.
Haffah has become the latest Syrian district transformed into a bleak and charred ghost town during a 15-month-long insurrection that has cost more than 10,000 lives, with no end in sight.
“The town appeared deserted,” the U.N. said in a statement about its visit to Haffah, once home to more than 20,000 people and long an agricultural hub and cool summer retreat from the nearby Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia. “Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside.”
What happened to the townsfolk remained a question mark. Many fled north to neighboring Turkey, opposition activists said. The U.S. State Department had voiced fears of a government “massacre” in the town, but there was no word Thursday about such an outcome.
In the town, archives were burned, shops were looted and torched, vehicles destroyed and homes “appeared rummaged,” their doors left open, the U.N. said. The headquarters of the ruling Baath Party had been shelled, and the streets were littered with combat’s predictable detritus, remnants of heavy weapons and arms of various calibers.
“A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air,” the world body said, “and there appeared to be pockets in the town where fighting is still ongoing.”
The number of casualties in the fighting remained unclear, the U.N. said. Opposition activists have said dozens of people were killed on both sides in a military siege that lasted more than a week and included tanks, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships.
The government said it freed the town of “terrorists” who had committed “heinous crimes,” including murder, looting and arson strikes on the national hospital and other institutions.
The U.N. observers made no public finding on whether the devastation in Haffah resulted from shelling, street battles or vandalism, or a combination of factors.
From the government’s perspective, the battle for Haffah counts as a tactical success: Syrian authorities, with their greater firepower, remain capable of overrunning rebel-held territory and preventing the permanent presence of “liberated” zones. That calculation does not appear to have changed despite reports of rebel territorial gains, increased military defections and better armaments reaching the Syrian insurgents.
For the Syrian leadership, the significance of Haffah may go beyond the tactical: The town is situated in Latakia province, ancestral homeland of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose members include President Bashar Assad and many of his top security commanders. Haffah’s former residents were said to have mostly been members of the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, which is driving the rebellion.
This week, angry pro-government villagers prevented a U.N. observer convoy from entering Haffah, the U.N. said.
Elsewhere in Syria, a bomb-laden car driven by a suicide attacker exploded Thursday near a major Shiite shrine outside the capital, Damascus, injuring 14 people and damaging the shrine, according to news agencies and state media.
The blast was the latest in a series of car bombs that has killed scores of Syrians and elevated tensions in Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where the attacks have been the most dramatic manifestation of the insurrection. Authorities have blamed al-Qaida-linked militants from Syria and other nations, including neighboring Iraq and Jordan, for previous suicide bombings.
It was unclear whether the intended target of Thursday’s strike was a nearby police station or the golden-domed Sayyida Zainab shrine, the Associated Press reported. The shrine is one of Shiite Islam’s holiest and most magnificent sites and a favored destination of its pilgrims, especially Iranians. It is said to be the burial place of a revered granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad.