Five days of fighting over Kafer Zaita in northern Syria came to an ignominious end Wednesday, with the town devastated and empty of people but controlled by neither the government nor the rebels.
After sometimes fierce fighting that began Saturday and was witnessed by a McClatchy reporter, the rebels had abandoned the town Tuesday.
On Wednesday, government troops moved in and, according to rebels, burned and bulldozed about 60 homes that presumably had belonged to rebel sympathizers. Then without warning the army pulled out. The rebels moved back in, planted explosives in the army command post that had been the object of most of the fighting, and demolished it. Then the rebels, too, were gone.
Left behind were many damaged and destroyed buildings, some of them still smoldering when the last rebels pulled out.
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What sparked the fighting was never very clear. Rebels said the army started it by shelling the town from the command post in retaliation for a visit earlier by a United Nations monitoring team based in the city of Hama. They called for other rebels to assist, and soon more than 500 rebel fighters had arrived in the town. But in three days of fighting, they never succeeded in taking the command post.
Danish Lt. Col. Peter Dahl, the head of the Hama-based U.N. team, told McClatchy that he and other monitors had attempted to establish an outpost to observe the battle. But their plans were disrupted when fire from a Syrian tank disabled one of his two vehicles.
In an interview, he said the U.N. team had been alerted to the outbreak of fighting by a phone call Saturday night from a rebel commander. U.N. rules forbid the monitors from traveling after dark, so Dahl and his team headed for Kafer Zaita on Sunday morning, he said. They set up about a mile from the town to observe.
Later that morning, an army tank unit sought to reinforce the besieged command post. “They decided to clear a route by fire,” Dahl said. “Unfortunately, my vehicle happened to be on that route.”
Dahl said no U.N. personnel were injured. The team members were able to tow the downed vehicle back to their base in Hama. Dahl said he had no opinion on whether the fire had struck his vehicle “in the heat of battle” or was intentional.
“I would like people to know that we tried,” Dahl said. He said he’d submitted a report of the incident to U.N. headquarters in New York.
Only one rebel died in the fighting, killed by fire from a helicopter. Army casualties are unknown, though the fighting coincided with what must surely be the bloodiest period of combat for the Syrian military since the uprising began nearly 15 months ago. In the first five days of June, the government news agency listed the names of 100 soldiers or police officers who’d died in clashes with rebels. The agency doesn’t list where the soldiers died.
As for the town itself, casualties were uncertain. Most residents had fled before the final battle. Once the rebels were gone Tuesday, the army tanks took up positions in the town and additional ground troops moved in. On Wednesday, according to rebels, they detained an unknown number of suspected sympathizers and destroyed their homes.
One rebel medic said his 37-year-old cousin had been burned in his home Wednesday. Another said a 15-year-old boy had been shot and killed. There was no way to confirm or disprove their accounts.
Then the army left and the rebels returned, to finish off the command post they’d been unable to capture. The few residents who remained could be seen leaving Kafer Zaita as a pair of rockets landed outside the town at around 8 p.m.