- Associated Press - Thursday, June 14, 2012

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A team of United Nations observers entered the Syrian town of Haffa on Thursday after government troops overran the area near the Mediterranean coast, seizing the territory back from rebels after battles that raged for eight days.

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

Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, confirmed that monitors had entered Haffa, and witnesses traveling with the team described scenes of heavy fighting and destruction, including burned-out state buildings and a corpse in a deserted street.

The observers tried for a week to get into the town in the coastal Latakia province after fears were raised that a brutal assault by regime forces was under way there.

The mountain enclave has been the site of intense clashes between government forces and hundreds of rebels holed up inside.

On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the U.N. mission’s vehicles near Haffa, forcing them to turn back.

Authorities then said Wednesday they had “cleansed” the area of “armed terrorist groups” and urged U.N. observers to head there immediately “to check what the terrorist groups have done.”

The observers stopped by torched buildings belonging to the ruling Baath party’s local branch as well as the burned courthouse, post office and other government institutions, according to the witnesses.

U.N. observers have reported a steep rise in violence and a dangerous shift in tactics by both sides in Syria in recent weeks.

Car bombs and suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria as the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad becomes increasingly militarized. Most have targeted security buildings and police buses, symbols of Mr. Assad’s regime.

It was not immediately clear whether Thursday’s bomber in the Sayyida Zainab suburb of Damascus intended to target the Shiite shrine or a police station that was only 50 feet away.

As the violence grows more chaotic, it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with al Qaeda, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.

Witnesses said the bomber detonated an explosives-packed van that he drove into a parking lot about 55 yards from the shrine despite efforts by guards to stop him. The blast shattered the shrine’s windows, knocked down chandeliers and electric ceiling fans, and cracked some of its mosaic walls.

Parts from the car detonated by the suicide bomber were found inside the shrine’s sprawling complex.

Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world converge on Sayyida Zainab suburb every year to visit the golden-domed complex of the same name, which is believed to house the remains of the granddaughter of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Story Continues →