Six rotting corpses lie on a road in Saif al-Dawla, a district of Aleppo whose high ground was conquered by regime forces in what the army called a turning point in the battle for Syria’s second city.
“It was very difficult because the terrorists had occupied the two malls on either side of the street and could use them to terrorise the surroundings,” says a colonel who accompanied AFP journalists on a tour of the war-wracked district.
Syrian troops and officials have branded the rebels “terrorists” ever since they took up arms against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces after the first anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011.
All that remains of the two 10-storey malls are their carcass-like frames, their blue-green facades pulverised. In between gaps in the structures, children’s clothes are seen hanging from a rail.
“We had to put up heavy fire to create a diversion and allow a squad to enter the building. Then we fought our way up floor by floor and at the top we found rifles with sights used by snipers,” says the officer.
Trucks and taxis in the street outside sit motionless, windscreens riddled with bullet holes. In the stone buildings either side of the avenue, apartments are charred inside and out.
But Saif al-Dawla, in the west of Syria’s second city of Aleppo, 355 kilometres (about 220 miles) north of the capital Damascus, is far from secured.
As a precaution the colonel and his men march in a single file with journalists, sticking close to the walls of the buildings for protection.
On a side street soldiers carry out the body of a fallen comrade, wrapped in a yellow sheet, after he had been killed by a round of anti-tank fire. About 50 metres further down, the street turns into enemy territory.
“They still have a presence … but the rebels on Saturday lost the strategic advantage they had when they occupied the two towers,” says another officer.
A commander picks up a school exercise book found in an apartment occupied by the rebels.
On the first pages are details of the shifts which the rebels occupying the two malls had worked, including their hours off. One column reads, for example, Abu Firas, his hours and his nationality.
The notebook appears to show that half of them were foreign fighters — Libyans, Tunisians, Turks, Yemenis an Chechens — and the other half Syrians.
“This is a turning point in the battle for the liberation of Aleppo and I think in two days, God willing, the entire district will be in our hands and in 10 days we will clean Aleppo,” the top commander of the Aleppo operation told AFP.
“It’s difficult because the urban landscape is made up of three- or four-floor buildings, but we will advance quickly,” he says with a smile.
The rebels on July 20 opened a new front in the Syrian conflict by launching attacks in Aleppo, which had previously been relatively unaffected by the revolt, before the army dislodged them from several sectors, including the strategic area of Salaheddin.
AFP journalists who visited Salaheddin with the army on Monday found the neighbourhood effectively under government control.