Residents in Syria's Aleppo fear blockade as regime advances

Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - Shop shelves are bare and prices have doubled in Syria's Aleppo as the threat of a blockade looms after advancing regime forces cut off the second city's main supply route last week.

"What will happen when food runs out? We'll die of hunger," said Abu Mohammed, who has seven children.

"Everybody here fears a blockade. We can feel it unavoidably coming," said the 42-year-old salesman from the southeastern Fardoss neighbourhood.

Some 300,000 people are at risk of being placed under siege in Aleppo, a city that has been divided since 2012, with government forces controlling the west and rebels the east.

Government troops cut off the eastern part's main lifeline to the Turkish border in a onslaught backed by Russian air strikes they launched this month against rebels in northern Aleppo province.

"I've saved some flour, rice, sugar and oil but it won't last my family more than three months," said Abu Omar, a father of four.

"Many shops have closed and prices have doubled," said the resident of the eastern Kallasa neighbourhood.

- No more heating -

"One litre of fuel has shot up from 180 to 300 Syrian pounds," or to 75 US cents, he said. "We're not using it for heating anymore -- even in this freezing cold".

Some 51,000 Syrians have been displaced in the latest regime offensive, the UN says.

But Abu Omar, who has been unemployed for more than a year, cannot afford to escape with his family to Turkey as thousands have done before him.

Those who want to cross the closed border have to pay smugglers "$200 per person," he said.

Nearly five years of civil war have devastated Syria's former economic powerhouse, which was also famous for its cuisine.

Residents are only exceptionally allowed from one side of the city to the other through army checkpoints.

Only one route remains out of the city's rebel-held areas to the Turkish border, via the opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west, but it is much longer and more dangerous.

Mohammed Jokhdar, a 27-year-old activist from the Zabadiya neighbourhood, said fuel necessary to run electricity generators, bakeries and cars is no longer reaching the city.

Electricity supply has dropped to just six hours a day from 14, he said.

- 'Nothing to sell' -

In eastern Shaar neighbourhood, which has been ravaged by the regime's barrel bombs, shop owner Abu Ali, 50, said he no longer has anything to sell.

Everything used to come from Turkey, he said, but that stopped when government troops cut off the road from the Bab al-Salama border gate.

"And people have stopped buying. Everything I've sold in the last two weeks barely covers the cost of running the shop's generator."

But Abu Mohammed said some shopkeepers are taking advantage of the situation to make money.

"Some people hide their merchandise to then sell it a few days later at twice the price," he said.

The price for a kilo of bananas has increased from 150 to 300 pounds and a packet of bread from 100 to 250 pounds, he said.

Rebel fighter Omar Karnieh said his battalion would continue fighting pro-regime troops because "a siege on the city would be a disaster".

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Thursday voiced "utmost alarm" at the rapidly worsening human rights situation in and around Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

UN figures released in January put the number of people under siege in Syria at around half a million, with more than half of those in areas encircled by regime forces.

But a report from the Washington-based Syria Institute and the Dutch PAX non-governmental organisations last week said double that -- more than a million Syrians -- are living under sieges, mostly enforced by the regime.

Syria's conflict has claimed 260,000 lives and displaced half the population since March 2011.

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