Middle East

Syria: UN monitors enter Haffa, amid massacre fears

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Media captionUN observers said Haffa appeared deserted following days of heavy fighting

UN monitors have entered Haffa, in western Syria, days after violent clashes forced them away from the town.

Observers tried to reach Haffa on Tuesday, amid fears a massacre was taking place, but fled after crowds surrounded and fired on their vehicles.

A Reuters photographer travelling with the UN convoy described the town as nearly deserted, with burnt-down buildings and abandoned shops.

Earlier a car bomb was detonated near the capital, Damascus.

The blast killed the bomber and injured 14 people in the suburb of Sayyida Zainab.

The area is known for housing one of Shia Islam's holiest sites, the tomb of Zaynab bint Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter.

Violence also took place in other parts of Syria, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting a number of deaths in Douma.

Activists said at least 52 people were killed across the country on Thursday, according to AFP news agency.

'Stench of bodies'

Explosions appeared to have taken place at some point in Haffa, with the Reuters photographer saying the town showed signs of heavy bombardment.

Some of the buildings burnt down were state offices, and the photographer said at least one body had been left on the street.

The photographer added that the small number of people they had seen in Haffa would not speak about what had gone on there.

According to the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), observers reported finding the town deserted but with a strong stench of dead bodies.

An AFP reporter who also travelled with the UN convoy said most of the anti-regime graffiti in the town had been painted over, although in one area part of a verse from the Koran was still visible.

The reporter also noted writing seemed to be written by rebels stating: "If you return, so too shall we."

The US raised concerns over the actions of the Syrian government in Haffa, following massacres in other areas of the country.

Kofi Annan, the UN's peace envoy to Syria, earlier this week said there were indications a large number of civilians were trapped in Haffa.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had said it was vital observers reached Haffa.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US had held "constructive" talks with Russia on Syria.

She said her deputy, Bill Burns, had met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a visit to Kabul.

Moscow, which supplies arms to Damascus, is under mounting pressure from the US and other countries to take a tougher stance on Syria.

The US also clarified an earlier statement on the issue, saying that its claim that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria actually referred to refurbished machines already owned by Damascus.

The Russians had angrily denied the American claim.

Mrs Clinton said US President Barack Obama would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at next week's Group of 20 summit in Mexico.