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Syrians in capital hoard food, seek shelter as strike looms

Syrians shop at al-Shaalan market in Damascus August 28, 2013. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri
Syrians shop at al-Shaalan market in Damascus August 28, 2013. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri

(The reporter's name has been withheld for security reasons)

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrians in the capital Damascus are racing against time to prepare for a foreign strike, with many hoarding supplies and others scrambling to find accommodation further away from potential military targets.

In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among the civilian population, many worry Damascus could become an especially dangerous place should a Western-led strike come in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons last week that killed hundreds in the suburbs.

At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dried goods and canned foods, fearing they may face shortages if a strike hits the city. The items most in demand were batteries and water.

Nearby, a nurse idled in a clinic - empty as nearly no one showed up for their appointments on Wednesday - and raised the question on the mind of so many locals.

"We live in the capital. Every turn, every street, every neighborhood has some government target. Where do we hide?"

Syrians have faced daily bloodshed and the constant threat of shelling and car bombs in their country's 2-1/2-year civil war, which began as peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad and has since killed over 100,000 people.

Now those who did not leave worry they have no place to hide.

"I'm starting to see the fear in people's eyes," said one resident named Rula, speaking by phone. "People have been in the habit of stocking extra food since the conflict began, but now people are buying huge amounts of food and water."

Around Damascus, many banks were crowded with people, and dozens queued at cash machines.

Amid the gloomy mood, some Assad loyalists tried to stir a sense of patriotism. Hummers drove around the neighborhoods of central Damascus blaring nationalist songs. Young people painted cement road blocks with the Syrian flag.

On the capital's outskirts, residents living in districts such as Hameh, Jumraya and Qudsiya were especially nervous - they are the site of several military research facilities and weapons caches, in addition to military bases.

Areas surrounding Jumraya have been hit twice by Israeli strikes in the past year. The second, in May, triggered dramatic orange-flamed blasts in the night sky.

Zaina, from Hameh, said her family and many of their neighbors were packing their bags and looking to rent houses.

"They're trying to get as far as they can from military sites. People are going to places like Mashrou Dummar or the Old City - anything that is more of a civilian area," she said.

Residents say it is already getting harder and harder to find a place to rent. Zaina said her family got lucky - a friend who had already emigrated lent them his house in a safer area.

"But what about my friend?" she wondered. "Her whole family lives in this neighborhood. There is no place for them to go."

(Writing and additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Will Waterman)