Fighting Rages Near Damascus Airport, Prompting Cancellations of Syria Flights

Opposition activists say Assad forces shell suburban district of al-Basateen in attempt to secure areas around capital's airport.

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Fighting raged Saturday between Syrian government troops and rebels in the vicinity of Damascus airport, opposition activists reported, , as Internet and cellular telephones continued to be cut for the third day.

Government forces were shelling the suburban district of al-Basateen in an attempt to secure areas surrounding the airport, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

With pressure building against the regime on several fronts, rebels have been trying to push their way back into the capital after being largely driven out after a July offensive into Damascus.

The violence has prompted several airlines to suspend their flights to and from Damascus in the past two days. Opposition fighters were battling government troops near the city's international airport Thursday, the Observatory reported, prompting the military to close the road to the facility.

Both the Dubai-based airline Emirates and EgyptAir have temporarily suspended flights to Damascus. A senior EgyptAir official said Thursday that the flight to Damascus scheduled for the following day would be canceled in light of the deteriorating conditions at Damascus airport. The official said an emergency meeting is scheduled to look into whether to halt all flights to the Syrian capital.

The airport lies on the capital's southern outskirts, and the surrounding districts have been strongholds of support for the rebels since the start of the uprising.

As fighting heated up around the airport on Thursday, the Syrian government shut down Internet across the country and cut cellphone services in select areas. The Internet blackout, confirmed by two U.S-based companies that monitor online connectivity, was unprecedented in Syria's 20-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.

Regime forces have suffered a string of tactical defeats in recent weeks, losing air bases and other strategic facilities, and the blackout may have been an attempt by the government to dull any further rebel offensives by hampering communications.

Authorities often cut phone lines and Internet access in select areas where regime forces are conducting major military operations to disrupt rebel communications. Activists in Syria reached Thursday by satellite telephone confirmed the blackout.

Renesys, a U.S.-based network security firm that studies Internet disruptions, said in a statement that Syria effectively disappeared from the Internet at 12:26 P.M. local time. "In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria's IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet," Renesys said.

Akamai Technologies Inc., another U.S-based company that distributes content on the Internet, also confirmed a complete outage for Syria.

The Washignton Post reported that the move would have serious effects on Syria's economy and national security. Egypt and Libya suspended Internet services during relatively early stages of the uprisings in their respective nations. In contrast, the Syrian regime made the move at a much later stage. One explanation for this, according to the Washington Post, is that the Assad government has made use of the Internet in order to track civilians and rebels, or even to extract personal information from them by way of internet fraud.

Assad has a background in computers, and has even made mention of his "electronic army" in the past. Apparently, the Syrian regime sees the Internet as both a liability and a useful tool, while authorities in Egypt and Libya saw it primarily as a mechanism used for support by rebels. It is also possible, according to the Washington Post, that Syria feared the economic effects of suspending internet services, or perhaps did not have all of the required tools to carry out the move.

Syria's minister of information said that "terrorists," not the state, were responsible for the countrywide Internet outage on Thursday, reported a pro-government TV station. "It is not true that the state cut the Internet. The terrorists targeted the Internet lines, resulting in some regions being cut off," he was quoted by al-Ikhbariya as saying.

State TV quoted the telecommunications minister as saying that engineers were working to repair what he said was a fault in the main communications and Internet cable.

A view of buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad in Daria, near Damascus, Nov. 30, 2012. Credit: Reuters

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