By ALBERT AJI and BEN HUBBARD, Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's oil minister blamed international sanctions Wednesday for shortages of cooking gas and other basic goods, saying the measures have bled $4 billion from the nation's ailing economy.
President Bashar Assad's regime must strike a delicate balance toward the U.S. and EU sanctions as it confronts a 15-month-old uprising against its rule, acknowledging their heavy toll while denying the regime's grip on power is in any way shaken.
Sufian Allaw said the punitive measures were to blame for the shortages that have left Syrians across the country standing in long lines to pay inflated prices for cooking gas, fuel, sugar and other staples.
The U.S. ambassador to Damascus denied that the international sanctions are to blame for the shortages facing Syrians.
"Our sanctions purposefully do not target oil and diesel imports, because we know that the Syrian people need both for their day-to-day lives," Ambassador Robert Ford wrote on the embassy's Facebook page.
Ford said the government is using fuel imports for its tanks.
"If the Assad regime decided to cut its military expenditures, more diesel and oil would be available for the Syrian people to use," he said.
Before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria's economy, with oil exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in $7-8 million per day. This income was key to maintaining the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government had at the start of the uprising.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus Wednesday, Allaw said sanctions had cost Syria's oil sector about $4 billion.
Prices for a tank of cooking gas have spiraled to some $25 as shortages have spread across the country. Allaw said Syria's gas production covers only half of the country's needs.
Officials are seeking imports from countries not party to the sanctions. A Venezuelan tanker carrying 35,000 tons of fuel docked in Syria on Tuesday, Allaw said. Another is supposed to follow.
He said officials were seeking to arrange further gas imports from Algeria and Iran.
Syria's uprising began with mostly peaceful calls for reform, but the government's brutal crackdown on dissent led many in the opposition to take up arms.
The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.
Violence in Syria also has spilled over into Lebanon, and Russia warned on Wednesday that greater violence in Syria's neighbor to the west was "a tangible threat" that "could end very badly."
Syria and Lebanon share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other.
The arrest earlier this month of an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syria led to gunbattles in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli that killed at least eight people and wounded many more.
And Syria's state news agency said armed gunmen had kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Syria on Tuesday, setting off protests in Beirut's Shiite-dominated southern suburbs where residents burned tires and blocked roads.
Lebanon's parliament speaker Nabih Berri told reporters in Beirut on Wednesday that the captives "will be with their families today or tomorrow."
He gave no further information on where they are or who is holding them.
Syria's state news agency blamed rebels for the kidnapping. It said the Lebanese group was on its way home from a religious pilgrimage in Iran when rebels intercepted their vehicles and abducted the 11 men and their Syrian driver.
Lebanese security officials confirmed the kidnapping.
World powers have pinned their hopes for an end to the Syrian crisis on a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan that calls for a cease-fire by all sides to allow for dialogue on a political solution.
But that plan is under strain. A cease-fire between government troops and rebels that was supposed to start last month has never really taken hold.
A bomb planted under a military bus exploded Wednesday near the Damascus airport, killing one soldier and wounding 23 others, a military official at the site said on condition of anonymity under army rules.
Anti-regime activist reported government rocket attacks on parts of the central city of Homs and clashes between rebels and government troops in the central town of Rastan, outside of Damascus and elsewhere.
The prospects for talks between the regime and those seeking to topple it appear as distant as ever. Assad's government dismisses the opposition as "armed terrorists."
For their part, opposition leaders say the regime has killed too many civilians to play a role in the conflict's solution.
An Arab League official said that Arab Foreign Ministers will hold an emergency meeting at the Arab League's Cairo headquarters on June 2 to discuss Syria.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to brief the media, said ministers will discuss Annan's peace mission.
Hubbard reported from Beirut.
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