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Ruins, stench of death greet U.N. observers at Syrian town

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 military offensive to recover rebel-controlled territories.

The monitors had been trying to get into the town for a week after fears were raised that a brutal assault by the regime's 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 siege of Haffa, a Sunni-populated village, had become a focus of international concern because of fears the uprising against Assad is evolving into a sectarian civil war pitting his minority Alawite sect against the majority Sunnis and other groups. Recent mass killings in other Sunni-populated areas have fed those concerns.

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

The U.N. observers' description of the smoldering ruins they found in Haffa suggested that Syrian forces were using intense force to quell rebels. But it also indicated that the rebels were determined to smash all symbols of the hated Assad regime, including state institutions.

"Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside," Ghosheh said in a statement. "Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire."

The U.N. observers' visit to Haffa came hours after a suicide bomber detonated a van packed with explosives in a Damascus suburb, wounding 14 people and damaging one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, according to witnesses and Syria's state-run news agency.

It was not immediately clear whether the bomber intended to target the golden-domed Sayyida Zainab complex or a police station 15 yards away. Believed to house the remains of the granddaughter of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, the shrine attracts tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world.

Activists say that some 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's accusation that Russia has "dramatically" escalated the crisis by sending attack helicopters to Syria lost some steam Thursday when the State Department acknowledged that the helicopters were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.

The issue had complicated the Obama administration's larger goals for Syria and U.S.-Russia relations before a key meeting of the nations' two leaders.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, however, that the nuance meant little, even as she refused to explain why the department didn't divulge the information earlier.