SYRIAN rebels have fired into the air to disperse a protest by civilians in a rebel-held district of Aleppo against a blockade preventing food and medicine reaching government-held areas of the northern city.
Rebel fighters have stopped supplies entering western parts of Aleppo for weeks. The tactic is aimed at weakening the supply routes of president Bashar al-Assad’s forces but thousands of civilians are now going hungry, residents say.
Opposition activists condemn the tactic, saying that it indiscriminately punishes people living in the 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, who asked not to be named.
Video footage posted on the internet yesterday showed dozens of civilians in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Qasr protesting at a rebel checkpoint which prevents supplies from entering the western section of the city, home to two million people and held by the army.
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 Mr Assad’s forces there. Although insurgents and the army control different parts of the country, civilians are normally allowed to cross freely to shop or meet family members and friends.
The footage, posted by the opposition Bustan al-Qasr information office, showed men at the protest chanting, “the people want an end to the blockade”. A rebel fighter brandishes a pistol and then a gunshot is heard as the video ends.
An opposition activist group called the Aleppo Martyrs said rebels fired at the protesters, killing one person and wounding several others. But a resident at the protest said the man was killed prior to the protest by army sniper fire as he tried the cross between rebel and government-held territory.
A rebel fighter 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.”
More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s two-year conflict. It started because Mr Assad’s forces fired live ammunition against pro-democracy protests, leading to an armed revolt.
Rebels who now control many parts of the country are blamed for similar abuses by rights groups, including torture and harsh punishments imposed by religious courts.
Humanitarian aid organisations say their shipments have been blocked by both rebels and the army in many parts of Syria.
“We are facing challenges delivering assistance throughout the country, especially in contested areas,” said Jane Howard, a United Nations world food programme (WFP) spokeswoman.
Ms Howard said the WFP has tried eight times since October 2012 to deliver aid to Moadamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus that has been pummelled by air strikes and artillery.
Although the area is only three miles from the WFP warehouse, Ms Howard said convoys were “either turned back, did not get approval or came under fire”.
In Aleppo, the WFP has delivered rations to more than 250,000 people in the weeks leading up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started on Tuesday.
“We have our fingers crossed that if Aleppo goes through a particularly difficult period, we’ve managed to get enough food into the city to tide people over for the next month,” she said.
Residents in western Aleppo say food prices have jumped to more than ten times their original level.