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Syrian army siege east of capital tightens as food, supplies dwindle

Civilians carry bottles as they queue to buy petrol in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Msallam Abd Albaset
Civilians carry bottles as they queue to buy petrol in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Msallam Abd Albaset

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's army has sealed the few remaining smuggling routes into the besieged eastern suburbs of Damascus, activists and aid workers said on Wednesday, tightening a chokehold on rebel-held areas near the capital.

Activists inside the Eastern Ghouta region, a semicircle of rural towns outside Damascus, said no food or supplies had entered the region in days. They said the army began intensifying its blockade over a week ago.

Residents worry that conditions will soon mirror those of people living in suburbs to the west of the capital, where hunger has become so severe that doctors have reported several cases of death and illness from malnutrition.

Aid workers confirmed the activists' accounts.

"It seems the government is tightening its grip on these areas. It seems something is going on, but we can't figure it out," one humanitarian worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Analysts say President Bashar al-Assad's forces have recently intensified efforts to try and starve out the rebels fighting to oust him.

In the past few months the army has managed to halt the rebels' advance around Damascus, but it has been unable to root them out of many areas they entered on the outskirts of the capital.

"Last week, the army managed to seal the last smuggling route from Damascus that we used to get food and flour. If we don't find a new opening, we'll be destroyed," said an activist who calls himself Nidal, speaking by Skype.

Activists said fighting on the roads outside another village called Mleiha, where the rebels have made advances in recent days, closed the only other potential route for food and fuel.

"Fuel is like water here, we need it for everything because the regime cut our electricity a year ago. We need it for power, we need it for our vehicles, for farm equipment," said an activist in the area named Mohammed.

He said a tank of gasoline now costs 13,000 Syrian pounds (about $74), more than double what it cost two weeks ago. Bread prices have also nearly doubled to about $5 for a bag of bread, activist said.

"We are talking about the people who can afford to buy. More and more people have nothing to pay with at all," said Amar al-Hassan, an activist in the area, speaking by Skype.

Aid groups have struggled to get access to areas across Syria because they are blockaded either by the army or rebels.

Fighting in other areas can also make them too dangerous to enter, leaving civilians trapped with little food or medical aid, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The 2-1/2-year conflict has killed well over 100,000 people. More than 2 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad and millions more have been displaced inside the country.

Residents in Eastern Ghouta say they fear a "Mouadimiya scenario". The suburb, west of Damascus, has grappled with severe food shortages for nearly a year.

Aid workers in Damascus, who negotiated a truce to get out thousands of residents from the town, said that locals had resorted to eating leaves and grass.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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