BEIRUT: Internet and telecommunications to most of Syria were cut Thursday, throwing the country into an almost complete media blackout.
News that did trickle out of the country served to heighten fears of an intensive government crackdown against opposition rebels, with details emerging of concentrated government airstrikes on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo.
Fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad along the airport road in the capital restricted access to the international airport, before army forces secured the highway, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Emirates airlines suspended daily service to Damascus “until further notice.” EgyptAir also said it has suspended all flights to Damascus because of “the deterioration of the security situation” there.
A spokesman for the rebels’ Military Council in Damascus, Musaab Abu Qitada, said an artillery round was fired at a military site inside the airport and that fighting was less than a kilometer away from the complex.
Two Austrian soldiers in a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed to monitor the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were wounded when their convoy came under fire near the Damascus airport, Austria’s Defense Ministry said. Syria state television said the soldiers were wounded by gunfire from rebels.
A blog post on Renesys, a U.S. company which tracks Internet traffic worldwide, said that at 12:26 p.m. (10:26 GMT), the entire country’s Internet connectivity shut down completely.
Some residents contacted by international news agencies said mobile and land telephone lines were functioning intermittently. Rebels and the government traded blame for the blackout – the worst communications outage in 20 months of conflict, reminiscent of similar outages in the early stages of popular uprisings in Libya and Egypt in 2011.
The government has been accused of cutting communications in previous assaults on rebel-held areas in Syria. Syria’s minister of information said “terrorists” were responsible for the Internet shutdown.
A Syrian security source told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the army had started a “cleansing operation” in the capital to confront rebel advances.
The source, who is from Assad’s elite 4th Armored Division, said one of the aims of the operation was to seal off the suburbs – where rebels are dominant – from the city center.
Activists said the areas were taking one of the heaviest poundings they had seen in months. Syrian warplanes Thursday bombed Kfar Souseh, Douma and Daraya, neighborhoods that fringe the center of the city.
Elsewhere, activist video from a government airstrike showed residents attempting to retrieve the dead and injured from rubble, following an airstrike reported in Ansari, Aleppo. Another showed the bodies of four children, wrapped in red blankets and apparently wearing pajamas.
Rebels decry their supporters for not providing them with surface-to-air missiles that they say they need to counter the air force. The U.S. is pressuring divergent groups opposition elements to unify under newly formed umbrella coalition, in what rebels hope will pave the way for greater U.S. support.
Spain became the latest U.S.-allied country to recognize the coalition – formed in Doha last month – as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people Thursday, and sources in Washington indicated they may soon follow suit.
Announcement of the recognition is planned on or around a conference of more than 70 nations in Morocco Dec. 12. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is planning to attend the upcoming Friends of Syria gathering.
Sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. But speaking at a conference on Syria in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford suggested that the administration was getting closer to upgrading its recognition of Syria’s opposition council.
“They are a legitimate representative of the Syrian people’s aspirations,” Ford said. “And we will work with them. We will cooperate with them. They have a vision of Syria. It’s a vision that we strongly support of a country that would be democratic, that would respect human rights, and that would be a force for stability in the region.” – With agencies