In a house with a gutted facade, one Syrian soldier strums a guitar, another plays an accordion he found and six comrades join them to belt out a popular song.
They sit around a table sipping bitter “mate” tea popular with soldiers, celebrating their victory over rebels in the town of Mleiha, 10 kilometres (six miles) southeast of Damascus, after months of fighting.
“My country, you are beautiful and God made ââyou beautiful even if the whole world is against you,” they sing, clapping their hands.
The joyful song contrasts with the desolation which now reigns in the streets outside.
Before Syria’s civil war began more than three years ago, Mleiha had 25,000 residents.
Now it is deserted, its streets rubble-strewn, power cables hanging from gutted buildings, its shops shattered and homes destroyed.
The country’s most important medicines plant, Syria Tameco, is in the area and was destroyed a few months after the crisis erupted in mid-March 2011.
On Thursday, government forces retook Mleiha, a strategic town on the capital’s outskirts near the main road to Damascus international airport.
The army said Mleiha would now serve as a springboard for its bid to regain control of Eastern Ghouta, an important rebel bastion outside Damascus that has long been in its sights.
For a year, government forces besieged and bombarded Mleiha before they launched their assault in April.
– Network of tunnels –
The flashpoint town used to be a middle class area, but now it is a battlefield where a raging conflict focused, the military said, on an impressive network of tunnels.
Another difficulty faced by the government forces was that Mleiha is surrounded by wooded areas which favoured rebel tactics, and taking the town was a long and laborious venture.
AFP journalists who went to Mleiha on Friday on a visit escorted by the army saw five tractors removing rubble from the streets, and a signpost declaring “Main Mleiha Square” in the town centre.
Some 300 metres (yards) away, a plume of smoke rose, and soldiers said the army was clearing buildings of mines.
The journalists saw three parked tanks as pickup trucks sped through the streets.
Jihad Defdaa, a member of the pro-regime National Defence Forces militia, told AFP he had come from Kfar Batna “ten minutes’ walk from Mleiha” and that he was “very happy”.
“I hope my country will be liberated, and that I can return to my home,” he smiled.
Defdaa said he had taken up arms after rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime killed his two brothers.
An army lieutenant who identified himself as Ahmad told AFP: “This is a strategic area which allows access to Eastern Ghouta, from where armed men attack the citizens of Damascus.”
– Supported by Hezbollah –
“They fire shells and rockets they manufacture in the area at Damascus, affecting the lives of peaceful citizens,” he added.
The lieutenant said that in taking Mleiha, “the Syrian army has destroyed the last hopes of the terrorist groups of entering Damascus,” using the official term for those who oppose the regime.
He said army units had “penetrated Mleiha along several axes, killed a large number of armed men and seized their weapons.
“Those who were able to escape withdrew into Eastern Ghouta,” he said.
The army’s operating to take Mleiha was supported by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah organisation, and aimed to cut off Eastern Ghouta from Western Ghouta and southern Damascus.
The army could then bypass Jubar, a strategic area in the east of the capital held by the insurgents, and attack nearby villages.
A resident of the mainly Druze and Christian southeastern suburb of Jaramana, which the rebels have been shelling for months, said their area could now breathe more easily.
“Even so, yesterday evening two shells landed near my house, fired from Ain Tarma” village in Eastern Ghouta, he said.
According to Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “retaking Mleiha will allow the regime to protect certain zones in Damascus from rebel rocket fire”.
Government forces have a secure hold of the Syrian capital, but rebel positions around the city target Damascus with frequent mortar fire.