By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels have intensified their blockade of government-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, where residents now face severe food shortages, opposition activists said on Tuesday.
Many activists condemn the tactic, aimed at weakening the supply routes of President Bashar al-Assad's forces, arguing that it indiscriminately punishes more than 2 million people living in the western part of the city still held by the army.
Aleppo has been in a stalemate since nearly a year ago, when rebels launched an offensive and seized half of the city.
"This is a crime ... Some of our rebel forces, God reform them, are participating in this blockade. Prices are soaring at an unimaginable rate. There is now horrible scarcity," said an activist speaking by Skype, who asked not to be named.
Rebels have been working for months to block roads leading into western Aleppo, but food scarcity only became a serious problem this week. The fighters decided for the first time to block a highway once left open to civilians, according to an Aleppo-based activist who asked not to be named. Previously, they had only attacked Assad's forces there.
A rebel fighter in Aleppo said the blockade on residents was not intentional, but rather an unfortunate side effect of rebel clashes with the army.
"This is really because of the battles. It's not just the rebels' fault, the army is also firing on any car that goes toward the west," said the fighter, who calls himself Ahmad.
"The regime has plenty of food to feed its fighters, but to hell with its own people."
"CROSSING OF DEATH"
He did however acknowledge that a few roads, such as the Bustan al-Qasr route, had been blocked by rebel units. Locals had used it to move food to the west from the rebel-held east.
Activists say food is now cheaper in rebel areas, which themselves suffered severe scarcity a few months earlier due to army blockades and air raids.
Residents in western Aleppo say food prices have jumped to more than ten times their original level and basics such as bread and flour have become harder to find. Only products such as bulgur wheat and rice are still regularly available.
The cost of a jar of yogurt, a staple of the Syrian diet, is now 1,300 Syrian pounds ($7), up from 100 pounds (50 cents).
Many Syrians have lost their jobs in the country's bloody two-year war and find it hard to buy food. With the currency plunging, even state employees still being paid will struggle if food supplies continue to be blocked. Their salaries are now worth only about $105 a month.
Most routes into western Aleppo are being actively blocked by rebels or are the scene of fierce clashes, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group.
"The only road that is still somewhat useable is one near the district of Bustan al-Qasr, but it is so dangerous now that people call it 'The Crossing of Death'," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory.
Some rebel groups have become increasingly interested in using military tactics that threaten civilian areas as much as army sites in territory held by Assad's forces.
A rebel commander near Assad's stronghold on the Mediterranean coast said this week that it was time to start shelling civilian areas to raise pressure on Assad. He justified the tactic by pointing to the daily air and artillery strikes used by Assad's forces around Syria that kill dozens daily.
More than 100,000 people have died in Syria's two-year conflict. Sectarian violence is also increasing, pitting an opposition led mostly by the Sunni Muslim majority against the country's minorities, particularly Assad's Alawite sect.
Many minority groups live in the districts now being blockaded by rebels.
One former Alawite resident of western Aleppo in contact with relatives in the city said his mother and neighbors were stockpiling food.
"They have been looking after each other and putting together what they have. I think they will be able to get by for about a month," he said.
Some opposition social media groups, such as the Facebook group "Aleppo Now", urged activists to help residents break through the blockade "using all means, legal or illegal".
They argued it would be hypocritical not to help, since residents in western Aleppo allowed in thousands of locals from eastern Aleppo last summer, when the army launched air raids to stop a rebel advance.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Giles Elgood)