AMMAN Syria's capital is facing the worst power cuts since the beginning of the country's 20-month-old revolt, with longer power outages and acute shortages of heating oil and diesel.
Residents and officials contacted in the capital by phone said many parts of central Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad's seat of power, now have electricity cuts of seven to nine hours a day, almost double the outages reported nearly two weeks ago.
The power cuts come at a time of increasing pressure on Damascus. Rebels are pushing to advance from their foothold on the outskirts into the capital itself. The army has responded by battering the suburbs with artillery and bombs.
An official source in the ministry of electricity was quoted as saying by state media that the increased rationing hours in parts of the capital were due to "sabotage by armed terrorists" of high voltage towers that feed southern districts of Damascus.
Residents say outages in the last week almost doubled to an average of 12 hours a day in the worst hit areas, such as The southeastern suburb of Jeramana, and to at least six hours a day in several key central areas such as Tijara and Midan.
"If you add together how many hours of electricity (there are) it's only two or three hours that is coming and the rest of the day it's cut," said Anas Atari from Jeramana, where fighting has escalated on its outskirts near the airport.
Unlike rural areas that have seen the worst violence, central Damascus was until last month spared the steep power outages witnessed across other parts of the country.
The government has now increased the cost of a litre of gasoline to 55 pounds from 50 pounds (60 cents), the second hike the start of the revolt in March last year.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said authorities were trying to curb smuggling and reduce the heavy cost of subsidising fuel and electricity at a time when Syria faces a foreign currency crunch due to sanctions.
The ability of the state to ease fuel shortages and control prices of some basic commodities has so far helped Assad cling to power, because households are getting basic needs.
But residents say the cost of public transport has doubled since last month as fighting creeps closer to central Damascus. Witnesses say several main gasoline stations in the city's bustling Baghdad Street, Liberation Square and Abassayid Square are facing acute shortages and longer queues.
"The problem is that things are all coming on top of each other - lack of transport and a crisis in diesel and more and more pressures that are making life unbearable," said Abdullah al-Hassan, an exchange dealer in the Seven Lakes area.
WORST SHORTAGES IN DIESEL
Businessmen and residents said the worst fuel shortages were in supplies of gasoil, an industry term for diesel, widely used for household heating oil, vehicles and industry. The black market price of diesel has shot up in the last two days to over 80 pounds a litre (around $1 at black market rates).
Residents say the shortages have even prompted government run petrol stations not to adhere to the official price of 20 pounds price of a litre of gasoil, with government vendors openly selling at higher than 35 pounds a litre for customers fortunate enough to find supplies.
Syria has been starved of fuel by U.S. and European Union sanctions that have cut off its usual supplies.
Sporadic diesel deliveries from Iran, Syria's main regional ally, can meet only a fraction of its needs and fresh deals with Russia have not yet been finalised.
Demand for diesel to power army tanks and other heavy vehicles was also diverting scarce supplies away from civilians, industry sources say.
They say rebel advances around the country have also disrupted state supply routes even when diesel was available in government storage tanks. The army now appears on the defensive.
"Logistics is the main problem. There are areas you cannot enter and there are highways in areas falling under rebel control where government fuel supplies are seized," said an employee in a state run fuel distribution firm, who requested anonymity.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Jon Hemming)