BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Far from the front line where Libyan rebels take on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, Saleh Awad is fighting his own battle to keep his grocery store stocked with basic foodstuffs such as butter, cheese and sugar.
Awad’s store in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is packed with milk cartons, canned tuna and loaves of bread — for now. He says trade disruptions since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February have made replenishing stocks a daily struggle, while prices of items such as cooking oil have doubled.
“These are the hardest days we’ve had so far, because we can’t get the goods we want when we want them. We’ve never had anything like this before,” Awad said as he rang up purchases.
“The last couple of days I have not been able to find any cheese. I used to buy two or three boxes, but some days you can’t find any.”
Fears of a looming food shortage in eastern Libya have grown since the World Food Programme warned this week that food stocks were not being replenished at normal rates and that current stocks would run out in two months.
Most international grain trading houses have suspended business with the rebel-held east over fears of non-payment, European traders say, while shipping companies are staying away from Libya over fears of breaching a U.N. arms embargo, a shipping group said.
Awad said he suspected that some people had started hoarding food as the conflict drags on. Residents of nearby towns were also coming to Benghazi to stock up on food, he said.
Benghazi’s stores remain reasonably stocked for now, but the difficulty in securing food imports has sent prices of basic foodstuffs soaring.
At a large supermarket in the city center, where the shelves are filled with eggs, juices, frozen foods and chocolate, manager Ibrahim Al-Arabi said he was trying to keep prices down.
Most food items were still available, he said, but difficulty in finding the foreign currency to pay manufacturers meant he was running out of specialty items such as sugar-free foods for diabetics.
“Before the revolution, I could choose what I wanted from Europe, but these days you have to take what you get,” he said.
Supplies are now largely brought over land from Egypt to the east along about 1,500 km (900 miles) of highway, since Gaddafi’s forces have cut off the city from the west and disrupted shipping from Europe and Asia at eastern ports.
At Awad’s store, a bottle of vegetable oil that retailed for 2.5 Libyan dinars ($2) now goes for 5 dinars, while the price of sugar has more than doubled to 2.25 dinars a kilo.
Many Libyans in Benghazi say the higher prices and scarce supplies are a small price to pay for a possible end to four decades of Gaddafi’s rule.
But the strain is starting to show on some families, as the conflict enters its third month and the rebel National Council scrambles to secure funds to pay salaries and handouts.
Haida Rashidi, 55, a widow with six children, said feeding her family has become tougher every day, especially on the 200 dinars a month she gets from the rebel government.
“Everything is available but prices are going up,” she said. “I’m trying to use very little tomato and oil each day.”
Additional reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Valeri Parent and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris and Jonathan Saul in London, editing by Miral Fahmy