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U.S./World

Overrun Syrian city found in ruins

| Thursday, June 14, 2012, 6:42 p.m.

BEIRUT -- Smoldering buildings, looted shops, smashed cars and a strong stench of death greeted U.N. observers who entered the nearly deserted Syrian town of Haffa on Thursday, a day after President Bashar Assad's forces overran it as part of a major offensive to recover rebel-controlled territories.

The observers had been trying to get into the town for a week since fears were raised that a brutal assault by regime forces was under way. They found the main hospital burned, state buildings and an office of the ruling Baath party in ruins and a corpse lying in the street.

"A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air," said Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the U.N. observers. She said there was still fighting in some pockets of the mountainous town in the seaside province of Latakia.

The number of casualties was unclear, Ghosheh said, and it appeared likely that, as in the past, bodies had been removed or buried before the U.N. mission got in.

The fighting, mostly quelled in Haffa, was mirrored in other parts of Syria, where more than 40 civilians and opposition fighters were killed yesterday, according to activists, alongside more than a half-dozen Syrian forces.

From the day's early hours, Syrian troops bombarded rebel-held areas with tanks, mortars and helicopters in the central town of Rastan, the Damascus suburb of Douma, the central city of Homs and the northern towns of Anadan and Hreitan, near the Turkish border, the activists said.

They said the fighting included clashes in the town of Hamuriya, near Damascus, that killed at least nine men who were allegedly butchered with knives. A video circulated by activists showed a pile of lifeless men, including one who was clearly slashed through the neck.

"Slaughter, slaughter!" a person could be heard screaming in the background. Another video showed a man lying in a garden, his arm blown off. There was no way to independently confirm the content of the videos because reporters are not allowed to work freely in Syria.

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