BEIRUT: Anxieties mounted as a communications blackout in Syria entered its third day Saturday, after Syrian air force jets had bombarded rebel targets close to the Damascus airport road Friday, halting flights.
Friends and family abroad tried to reach loved ones inside the country, with little success.
“I have a lot of close friends in Syria ... I am worried about all of them. I try the phone every half hour. There is no answer and no one is online,” said one young Syrian woman in Beirut.
Activists said security forces clashed with rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad around Aqraba and Babilla districts on the southeastern outskirts of Damascus which lead to the international airport.
An aviation source in neighboring Jordan said two Syrian Air flights crossed Jordanian air space heading for the Syrian capital Friday evening and that the Damascus airport was open, although international airlines were staying away.
The national airline Syria Air said services were operating according to schedule, state television reported.
EgyptAir and Emirates have suspended flights to Damascus in response to the recent violence, and there was no sign that Air Arabia and flydubai had flown scheduled trips Friday.
Internet connections and most telephone lines have been down since midday Thursday, in the worst communications outage in a 20-month-old uprising in which 40,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled the country, and millions been displaced.
The outage has prompted fears that Assad forces are planning an all-out assault against rebels, who have been making gains around Syria by overrunning military bases and ramping up attacks on Damascus, his seat of power.
Global hacking network Anonymous said it would shut down Syrian government websites around the world in response to a move it said was aimed at silencing Assad’s critics.
“As we discovered in Egypt, where the dictator [Hosni] Mubarak did something similar – this is not damage that can be easily or quickly repaired,” it said, referring to an Internet outage during the early days of the 2011 uprising in Egypt.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said the communications cut was of extreme concern.
“It is another demonstration of what the Damascus regime is doing to hold its people hostage. We call on the Damascus regime to re-establish communications without delay,” he said.
The Syrian Information Minister Thursday accused terrorists of sabotaging the country’s Internet connection.
CloudFlare, a firm that helps accelerate Internet traffic, said on its blog that saboteurs would have had to simultaneously sever three undersea cables into the Mediterranean city of Tartous and also an overland cable through Turkey in order to cut off the entire country’s Internet access.
“That is unlikely to have happened,” it said.
A resident of central Damascus said he saw black smoke rising from east and south of the city Friday morning and could hear the constant boom of shelling. State media said troops were fighting rebels in those areas.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group, said jets were bombarding targets in rural areas around Aqraba and Babilla, where rebels clashed with Assad’s forces.
Rebels said that at least one mortar round was fired at the airport during clashes Thursday. Unknown attackers also fired at a U.N. convoy leaving Damascus airport for the second day in a row Friday, a U.N. spokesman said, but no one was injured. Four Austrian troops in the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force for the Golan Heights were wounded Thursday when a convoy heading for the airport was attacked.
U.S. and European officials said rebels were making gains in Syria, but said the fighting had not yet shifted completely in their favor.
Activists say Assad’s forces have been shelling the Daraya district to the southwest of the city, trying to prevent rebels from cementing their hold of an area which could give them a presence in a continuous arc from the northeast to the southwest of the capital’s outer districts.
A Damascus-based diplomat said he believed the escalation in fighting around the capital was part of a government offensive which aimed to seal off the state-controlled center of the city from rebel-held rural areas to the south and east.
“I don’t know whether the shelling has succeeded in pushing back the FSA – experience shows that they return very quickly anyway,” the diplomat said. “We seem to be entering a decisive phase of the Damascus offensive.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday the conflict has reached “new and appalling heights of brutality and violence,” as he addressed the 193-member U.N. General Assembly alongside international Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
“The government has intensified its campaigns to root out opposition strongholds,” Ban said. “Opposition elements also have stepped up their attacks. I am horrified and saddened and condemn the seemingly daily massacres of civilians.”
Ban said with the onset of winter, up to 4 million people in Syria would be in need and that he expected the number of refugees – currently about 480,000 – to hit 700,000 by early next year. He appealed for more humanitarian aid and said he would soon visit refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey to assess the situation.
Brahimi said Syria was in danger of becoming a failed state and stepped up his pressure on the Security Council, which is deadlocked over taking stronger action on Assad, to adopt a resolution backing his peace bid.
Brahimi said rebel forces had made gains on the ground in the past few weeks, but the government remained confident that it has the upper hand.
“The areas of territory that they [rebels] control are expanding, and with strategic value in some cases,” Brahimi said. “In Syria itself, there is no trust between the parties. They do not even define the problem in the same terms.”
“Any peace process must include ... a binding agreement on the cessation of all forms of violence,” Brahimi said. – With agencies