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Syria phone, Internet access cut amid fighting

As fighting rages along a road between Damascus and the airport, it is not clear whether the nationwide phone and Internet outages are the result of an accident or a deliberate act.

November 30, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • In an image provided by a Syrian opposition group, a city in Homs province lies in ruins after an attack for which government forces are blamed.
In an image provided by a Syrian opposition group, a city in Homs province…

BEIRUT — Syria was plunged into Internet darkness Thursday and much of the nation's telephone service was cut as fighting raged on the main road between Damascus and the capital's international airport.

It could not be immediately determined whether the Internet blockage and the cutoff in telephone service were deliberate acts or the result of a power outage or damage to cables or other equipment. Fighting has engulfed several districts near the capital in recent weeks.

Both sides reported clashes along the airport road. It was unclear whether government forces were responding to rebel attempts to cut off the important artery, which leads southeast from Damascus and cuts through several districts known to have a heavy presence of armed rebels.

The Austrian Defense Ministry said two Austrian soldiers from a United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan Heights area — a disputed zone claimed by Syria and Israel — were injured when their convoy came under fire along the airport road. Their injuries were described as not life-threatening.

Several airlines, including Emirates Airline and EgyptAir, reportedly canceled flights to Damascus because of the deteriorating security situation.

Word of battles along the airport road, combined with the Internet outage, triggered speculation that a new government offensive or other major move may be imminent.

Smaller Internet outages have occurred across Syria in the past, but Thursday marked the first time that the entire country has in effect been blocked from the Internet, according to opposition activists and global Internet monitors.

The Syrian government and the opposition each blamed the other for the blackout, which began shortly after noon.

The Syrian Information Ministry put the responsibility for the service cut on "terrorists" and "armed groups" — its usual characterization of rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.

Syrian television quoted the minister of communications as saying that maintenance teams were fixing the damage, according to BBC Monitoring, which tracks local media coverage.

But opposition activists accused the government of cutting off the Internet, perhaps to conceal troop movements or disguise a new offensive.

One opposition network, the Local Coordination Committees, declared it would "hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made."

Each side has accused the other of massacres during the 20-month conflict, which has left thousands dead and displaced millions.

The Internet has played a key role in getting word out about the conflict. Syrian authorities have restricted access to independent journalists and human rights monitors, complicating efforts to find out what is happening in the country.

The opposition has made extensive use of social media, the Skype telecommunications service and YouTube to disseminate information about government attacks and alleged atrocities, as well as documenting rebel advances. Syrian authorities have launched their own cyber campaign to keep tabs on the opposition and spread the official view that foreign-backed "terrorists" are ravaging the country under the guise of an indigenous revolution.

Internet experts said it was impossible to determine if the cutoff was deliberate or accidental.

The government has the power to shut down much of the nation's Internet because it acts as a "gatekeeper" for connectivity into and out of the country, noted James Cowie, chief technical officer for Renesys, a New Hampshire-based Internet monitoring firm. And Syrian authorities have imposed "targeted blackouts" during the last year but never across the entire country, he noted.

Cowie added, however, that a power outage or damage to a crucial Internet communications structure could also have caused the blackout.

"It's entirely plausible that someone turned off the power to a critical facility, or that it was damaged," Cowie said by telephone from the United States.

Whatever the cause, the Internet shutdown seemed sure to increase the sense of insecurity that has become rampant throughout much of Syria.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Emily Alpert in Los Angeles and a Times staff writer in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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