Blown-up buildings, deserted streets and corpses of regime soldiers bear testimony to a fierce 48-hour battle before the town of Maaret al-Numan fell to Syrian rebels.
The capture of Maaret al-Numan on Wednesday was a major breathrough for the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, especially after they cut off the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.
Rebels say the fight to capture Maaret al-Numan began on Monday afternoon when the local military council attacked eight army checkpoints in the eastern part of this strategic town, which in normal times has a population of around 125,000.
Within 48 hours the rebels captured the checkpoints located at crossroads of the town, including a former prison and cultural centre, said Firaz Abdel Hadi, a rebel media official.
Sixteen rebels were killed by a landmine when they entered the cultural centre after it had been abandoned by members of the regime’s military intelligence when it came under attack.
In the basement lay the bodies of around 65 prisoners who the rebels say were executed by their captors minutes before fleeing.
Most of the victims are suspected to have been supporters of the anti-regime uprising or soldiers suspected of trying to defect, said a survivor who was miraculously saved after two bodies fell on him.
The walls of the building are riddled with bullets and stained with blood — witness to the massacre as soldiers fled. Thirty soldiers managed to escape wearing civilian clothes as the rebels advanced.
“Two RPGs were enough to send 50 soldiers fleeing,” boasted Abdel Hadi, laughing.
By Wednesday all loyalist positions in the town finally fell to rebels as Assad’s troops took refuge in two military camps on the outskirts of Maaret al-Numan, at Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh.
For the regime, the imperative was not to control the whole town, since its western sector had already been in rebel hands for the past two months, but to defend the highway from Aleppo to Damascus.
Syria’s army uses the highway to send reinforcements to the commercial capital in northern Syria.
On Thursday, rebels had control of nearly five kilometres (three miles) of the four-lane highway.
Fighting continued further east around Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh which rebels had surrounded, blocking columns of regime tanks sent as reinforcements from Damascus to Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Syrian troops tried during the night to retake Maaret al-Numan but failed, rebel commander Akram Sale told AFP, adding that four rebels were killed overnight.
On Tuesday, a bomb dropped by a MiG fell just metres away from the famous museum Alma Arra, damaging part of its mosaic collections and pottery, some dating back to 3,000 BC.
The museum which was previously occupied by regime troops is renowned for its mosaic collections, said to be the largest in the Middle East.
The rebels said that almost 300 people were killed in the three days of fighting in Maaret al-Numan, including 55 civilians, 46 rebel fighters and 190 Syrian army soldiers.