Abandoned machineguns and tunnels filled with mattresses and food are all that remains of the rebel presence in the Syrian village of Western Dumayna as the army tightens the noose around the adjacent town of Qusayr.
The village is one of three strategic settlements between Qusayr and the flashpoint central city of Homs that army commanders told AFP correspondents on the ground that they had recaptured on Monday.
“At around 9:00 am (0600 GMT) we staged simultaneous attacks on this village, Haidariyeh and Esh al-Warwar, which were under rebel control,” a lieutenant colonel who led the assault said.
“After three hours of fighting, the issue was solved.”
Western Dumayna lies some eight kilometres (five miles) north of Qusayr, which has been at the centre of fierce fighting between opposition forces and the army.
Troops took the village house by house but the houses all looked as though their inhabitants had fled long ago.
An AFP team who were the sole foreign correspondents on the ground saw evidence only that rebel fighters had been in the village before the army’s return.
In one house there were mattresses, some food and some abandoned black flip-flops.
In another, a black sweatshirt carrying the insignia of Islamist rebel group Kataeb Ahl al-Athr was all that remained.
In the heart of the village, the Abu al-Ala al-Maari school had been ransacked. There were no chairs or desks left in the classrooms, and no pictures on the walls.
The name of the 11th-century poet, for whom the school was named had been scrubbed out. His work is considered un-Islamic by hardliners among the rebels.
Just three more targets now stand between the army and full control of Qusayr’s northern approaches, chiefly the air base at Al-Dabaa, seized by the rebels a month ago.
Army commanders say they already have full control of the east and the south, and that units are arriving from the west.
Haidariyeh, Esh al-Warwar and Western Dumayna were strategic targets because they lie on the supply route between Qusayr and the rebel-held Old City of Homs, the lieutenant colonel said.
“By seizing control here, we are breaking all communication and, above all, supply routes between them,” he said.
Under rebel control for more than a year, Qusayr is now almost completely surrounded by the army.
“We have almost finished our work in the north. Other battalions are arriving from the west and the south, and the east is already under our control.
“The city is caught in the middle,” a senior officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In Haidariyeh, a mixed Sunni and Alawite village, the walls are covered in graffiti glorifying the rebel Faruq Brigades, a branch of the mainstream Free Syrian Army that has a strong presence in Homs province.
A pro-government militiaman who fled the village last year is with the advancing troops.
“One night, eight months ago, the rebels attacked the village and I was forced to flee. Today, I returned, and I saw the house had been looted,” the 26-year-old told AFP.
“But I will come back to live here, and when I phoned my neighbours and told them the army has regained control, they promised to return too,” he said.
The lieutenant colonel quickly calls him to order. “Let’s not joke around. We’ve still got work to do,” he said.