Haffa has become the latest Syrian district transformed into a charred ghost town during a 15-month insurrection that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
"The town appeared deserted," the United Nations said in a statement about its visit to Haffa, once home to more than 20,000 and long an agricultural hub and summer retreat. "Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside."
What happened to the townsfolk remained a question mark. Many fled north to Turkey, opposition activists said.
In the town, archives were burned, shops were looted and torched, vehicles destroyed, and homes "appeared rummaged," their doors left open, the United Nations said. The headquarters of the ruling Baath Party had been shelled, and the streets were littered with combat's predictable detritus, remnants of heavy weapons and arms of various calibers.
"A strong stench of dead bodies was in the air," the world body said, "and there appeared to be pockets in the town where fighting is still ongoing."
The Syrian government said it freed the town of "terrorists" who had committed "heinous crimes," including murder, looting, and arson strikes on the national hospital and other institutions.
U.N. observers made no public finding on whether the devastation resulted from shelling, street battles, vandalism, or a combination of factors.
This week, angry pro-government villagers had prevented a U.N. observer convoy from entering Haffa, the United Nations said.
Elsewhere, a bomb-laden car driven by a suicide attacker exploded Thursday near a major Shiite shrine outside the capital, Damascus, injuring 14 people and damaging the shrine, according to news agencies and state media.
It was unclear whether the intended target was a nearby police station or the golden-domed Sayyida Zainab shrine.
Also Thursday, the State Department acknowledged that the helicopters Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Moscow of sending Syria were refurbished ones already owned by the regime.
Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted that the nuance meant little.
"Whether they are new or they are refurbished, the concern remains that they will be used for the exact same purpose that the current helicopters in Syria are being used, and that is to kill civilians," Nuland told reporters.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.