Syria ups gas prices in new wartime austerity move

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Syria’s government has raised the price of gasoline and transportation in its latest wartime austerity move, a step likely to increase hardship for many Syrians already suffering from the economic consequences of civil war.

The price hike was announced late Friday as international weapons inspectors continued their task of identifying chemical weapons sites in the country as a first step to scrapping Syria’s chemical arsenal, amid reports of new fighting in a government-dominated province along the Mediterranean coast.

The price of a liter (quarter gallon) of gasoline increased one-fifth, from 80 Syrian pounds (45 cents, on the black market) to 100 (57 cents), according to a government declaration. Imad al-Assil, deputy minister of internal trade and consumer protection, said the decision would simultaneously raise transportation fees by 17 percent.

The consequences of a gasoline price rise are likely to be most punishing for Syrians living in rebel-held regions, where fuel is smuggled in or rushed through unsafe roads and can be up to three times as expensive as in the government zones.

The increase will also impact the price of food due to increased transportation costs. International groups say that rising prices has already made it difficult for Syrians to afford food, and activists have reported pockets of malnutrition in rebel enclaves like the suburbs of Damascus.

“This puts extra burdens on residents here,” said a rebel activist in the northern Aleppo province on Skype who goes by the name of Abu al-Hassan. “They last time the government raised the price, it doubled here,” he said.

Any increases will also likely raise heating costs for many city households, which use gasoline-powered generators to cope with frequent outages.

Syria has been importing gasoline to make up for a shortfall in local production, interrupted by the 2 ½-year conflict. It last raised the price of gasoline in May.

Meanwhile, U.N. experts sped out of their Damascus hotel in three cars, as they continued their mission to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by November 1 and to destroy President Bashar Assad’s entire stockpile by mid-2014.

Their mission was endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution last month.

Violence also continued across Syria, including in a vulnerable Sunni community in Tartous province dominated by the Assad regime’s Alawites sect. Syria’s civil war has cleaved along the country’s sectarian patchwork, and the country’s Sunnis dominate the revolt.

Two Syrian human rights groups reported that the village of al-Mitras was heavily shelled on Saturday.

Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which follows a network of activists in the field, said the shelling began early dawn after rebels were spotted in the area.

He said he feared regime militias would rush into the isolated village of several thousand people and attack residents after the shelling subsided, citing similar incidents earlier this year in two nearby Sunni communities in the same province.

“We are worried, because this is an isolated area and crimes can be covered up quickly,” he said.

Rights groups accuse Syrian government forces and pro-regime militias of carrying out killings of at least 248 people in two predominantly Sunni Muslim towns of Bayda and Banias on May 2 and 3.