DAMASCUS: Black smoke billowed from ruined homes Friday and three bloodied corpses lay in a square in Al-Midan, the Damascus district retaken by regime forces early in the day after fierce firefights with rebels.
The Syrian military escorted journalists in two armored personnel carriers into Al-Midan in the south of the Syrian capital after saying it had “cleaned” the district of “terrorists” – a term the regime uses to describe rebel fighters.
In Assakhane Square, an AFP reporter saw three rebels sprawled lifeless alongside a pickup truck mounted with a heavy machine gun and a vehicle loaded with a rocket launcher.
The military said the square had been the site of fierce fighting, and thick black smoke still billowed from several completely destroyed apartments.
The silence was broken only by the crackle of intermittent gunfire.
“There are still some snipers,” a soldier said. “We will remove them,” the soldier added.
Rebel slogans were still scrawled across the walls of several buildings.
“Protect the revolutionary Al-Midan! We will not kneel! Homs is strong, but Deir al-Zor bleeds!”
In several apartments that had been occupied by rebels, holes were gouged through interior walls so they could move from house to house, avoiding the dangers of the open street and snipers.
The stink of spent powder filled the air, and a minaret at the neighborhood’s Al-Majid Mosque had been pierced by a shell. Two armored personnel carriers mounted with heavy machine guns were stationed outside the mosque.
The building was a focus of the fighting and had been a regular site for anti-regime Friday demonstrations.
At a nearby grocery stall, potatoes, tomatoes and onions rotted under the hot sun, and ransacked stores suggested traders had fled in panic with no time to even close their shops. An abandoned sports shoe shop was littered with shards of broken glass.
The facades of several buildings were riddled with bullets or had been shattered by shellfire.
There was no sign of any civilians in Al-Midan, just some soldiers still wearing helmets and flak jackets as they lounged at a local barber’s shop.
One soldier said the elite Republican Guard led the assault on the neighborhood traditionally popular for selling sweets during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In one street an AFP reporter saw a bus had hit a traffic light and a minibus struck by an anti-tank rocket was completely burnt out. There was also an ambulance and an abandoned vehicle with U.N. stencilled on it.
State television had announced earlier Friday that regime forces had “cleaned” the Al-Midan area.
“Our brave army forces have completely cleaned the area of Al-Midan in Damascus of the remaining mercenary terrorists and have re-established security,” the broadcaster trumpeted.
One officer who declined to give his name said on television that “armed elements entered neighborhoods and attacked the residents, who begged us to rescue them. We began the recapture the day before yesterday [Wednesday], in the evening, and finished our work today [Friday] at dawn.”
State television broadcast images of handcuffed prisoners to a soundtrack of martial music, and for the first time since the uprising began more than 16 months ago, it also showed footage it said was of the bodies of rebels killed in Damascus, without specifying in which district the footage was taken.
Later, state television ran interviews with Syrian troops in Al-Midan, with one telling the channel, “We cleaned Al-Midan of these bastards.”
“My companions and I, our morale is very high, we are going to return hope to Syria.”
The Syrian military has said that a huge quantity of arms, including rockets and communications equipment, was also seized in Al-Midan.
An opposition activist calling himself Ahmad Midani said: “The Free Syrian Army pulled out of Al-Midan at dawn because of fierce bombardment.”
“The rebels took with them 200 women and children so they would not be raped or killed. Houses are still being searched and people arrested,” he added.
Britain-based watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that after Friday prayers in Al-Midan several people came out of mosques and staged demonstrations.