United Nations observers on Thursday visited the Syrian town of Al-Haffe and reported finding it all but deserted with a strong stench of dead bodies and most state buildings burned to the ground.
“Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside,” the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) said in a statement.
“Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire, residential homes appeared rummaged and the doors were open.”
It added that “a strong stench of dead bodies was in the air and there appeared to be pockets in the town were fighting is still ongoing.”
The observers since June 7 had been trying to reach the mainly Sunni Muslim town in northwest Latakia province to check on reports of a possible massacre there by regime forces.
Rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the town on Thursday, allowing regime troops to enter it and take control.
The eight-member UN team that visited the town on Thursday reported that the ruling Baath party headquarters was shelled and appeared to be the site of heavy fighting.
“Remnant of heavy weapons and a range of calibre arms were found in the town,” UNSMIS added. “Cars, both civilian and security, were also set on fire and damaged.”
It said the number of casualties was still unclear.
An AFP correspondent travelling with the UN convoy said municipal buildings, including the local water department and courthouse, as well as several shops had been torched.
There was no sign of life on the streets, except for a few workshops open, already trying to remove traces of the destruction and repair the damage.
Most anti-regime graffiti had been covered in black paint, though part of a Koranic verse was still visible on one building facade.
“If you return, so too shall we,” was seemingly written by rebels before they evacuated the town, whose entrance is now guarded by a military checkpoint.
State television said the observers had visited the region and “inspected the vandalism and destruction wrought by the terrorists.”
Authorities said on Wednesday that “security and calm” were restored in the area after it was “cleansed of armed terrorist groups” who, they claimed, had assaulted citizens and vandalised public and private property.
The rebels said they had decided to withdraw from the besieged town that had been under intense shelling to spare the lives of civilians.
Activists said regime forces and pro-regime militiamen known as shabiha raided the area after the rebels withdrew.
A UN convoy trying to reach the town on Tuesday came under fire and was forced to turn back by a stone-throwing crowd.
Regime troops began bombarding the area on June 5, in parallel with fierce clashes between soldiers and rebels on the outskirts of Al-Haffe.
The United Nations and opposition activists had expressed fears of a massacre if pro-government forces entered the town, just 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Assad’s mainly Alawite hometown of Qardaha.