By Mariam Karouny
QUSAIR, Syria (Reuters) - Apart from a bullet-scarred clock tower that somehow survived the battle, few buildings still stood on Wednesday in the ruined streets of the former rebel stronghold of Qusair, seized hours earlier by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
A Syrian flag, planted on top of the tower by one of the fighters who drove the rebels out, fluttered above the concrete shells of buildings which ring Qusair's central square.
Windows had been blown out and walls flattened in the brutal two-week battle for the border town which rebels used as a bridgehead to bring in weapons and fighters from Lebanon.
The streets of the town, once home to 30,000 people, were empty except for Syrian soldiers and their Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla allies who launched the final pre-dawn offensive of a battle that has turned momentum in the two-year civil war.
Three dead men lay in one street, their twisted, bullet-riddled bodies lying on a mound of concrete debris in front of a wall daubed with blood.
Amid the destruction and desolation, tired but jubilant troops celebrated their triumph.
"My happiness is indescribable," said Hossam, a 25-year-old soldier from the southern province of Suwaida. "This is a real victory for us - Qusair is back to Syria and the Syrians."
"We are heading now to crush Debaa," said one of his army comrades, referring to the village north-east of Qusair where rebel fighters had been holding out earlier this week. At one stage six tanks could be seen heading out on the Debaa road.
The triumphalism was echoed in graffiti written on Qusair's remaining walls. "Our leader Bashar" and "We will not bow" the slogans said.
Another fighter said he was going home to rest after four sleepless nights. "We went in, there was some fighting and then (the rebels) withdrew," he said. "We saw them leaving in about 400 cars."
On opposite sides of the main square a church and a mosque both bore the scars of war. The church walls were damaged and the dome of the mosque had also been hit.
On a tour of four streets near the center of town, hundreds of shops and houses were destroyed or damaged. Trees lining the streets were burnt.
"The people of Qusair will build it again. There is a reconstruction plan," regional governor Ahmad Mounir Mohammad said, calling on residents to return now that their town was "stable and secure".
Shortly afterwards bulldozers started moving piles of rubble, as bursts of gunfire still erupted across the town - fired either in celebration or by soldiers shooting into buildings as they combed the town for remaining rebels.
Soldiers said they had cleared hundreds of mines and unexploded ordnance, warning visitors to stay away from home-made bombs made out of gas canisters which still lay among the debris throughout the streets.
Residents had long since fled the fighting. There were few traces left of the rebels who made a last stand here over the past week.
Near the main square a two-storey building appeared to have been used as a clinic for rebel fighters.
A man's leg lay in a bag on the bloodstained floor. Tea cups were had been left out and the fan was still whirring to temper the early summer heat.
"Please do not bring weapons into the hospital," said a sign at the entrance. The clinic was packed with hundreds of boxes of drugs, most of them unopened, containing blood serum, antibiotics and adrenaline. In one of three operation rooms on the upper floor, dozens of blood-soaked bandages had been discarded, leaving a stale smell through the building.
One of the houses nearby showed signs that its occupants had left in haste - plates, glasses and a teapot were still laid out, abandoned. Inside a shop next door, a large hole in the ground marked the opening of a tunnel, part of a network used to connect neighborhoods of the fortified rebel stronghold.
On another street some army soldiers could be seen looting goods from a shop, carrying two electric fans away with them.
On the road into Qusair from neighboring Lebanon some fields had been set alight. Burnt out cars on the roadside became more frequent on the approach to the town and heavy tank tracks made the road itself hard to pass.
Sandbags, some piled up to three meters high, were riddled with bullet-holes.
In the Christian village of Rableh outside Qusair children waved Syrian flags, people held up pictures of Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and a woman shouted their thanks to a passing army convoy.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)