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Internet service goes out across Syria

  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian Army fighters capture a helicopter at the Marj al-Sultan military air base in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

    In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian Army fighters capture a helicopter at the Marj al-Sultan military air base in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

    In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

    In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

  • In this citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting,  Syrian citizens walk in a destroyed street that was attacked on Wednesday by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. Two US-based Internet-monitoring companies say Syria has shut off the Internet nationwide. Activists in Syria reached Thursday by satellite telephone confirmed the unprecedented blackout, which comes amid intense fighting in the capital, Damascus.(AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution)

    In this citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrian citizens walk in a destroyed street that was attacked on Wednesday by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. Two US-based Internet-monitoring companies say Syria has shut off the Internet nationwide. Activists in Syria reached Thursday by satellite telephone confirmed the unprecedented blackout, which comes amid intense fighting in the capital, Damascus.(AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution)

  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian Army fighters capture a helicopter at the Marj al-Sultan military air base in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
  • In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke leaps the air from a building after a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
  • In this citizen journalism image provided by the Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting,  Syrian citizens walk in a destroyed street that was attacked on Wednesday by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria, Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. Two US-based Internet-monitoring companies say Syria has shut off the Internet nationwide. Activists in Syria reached Thursday by satellite telephone confirmed the unprecedented blackout, which comes amid intense fighting in the capital, Damascus.(AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution)

Internet service went down yesterday across Syria and international flights were canceled at the Damascus airport when a road near the facility was closed by heavy fighting.

Activists said President Bashar Assad’s regime pulled the plug on the internet, perhaps in preparation for a major offensive. Cell phone service also went out in Damascus and parts of central Syria, they said. The government blamed rebel fighters.

With pressure building against the regime on several fronts and government forces on their heels in the battle for the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels have recently begun pushing back into Damascus after largely being driven out of the capital following a July offensive. One Damascus resident reported seeing rebel forces near a suburb of the city previously deemed to be safe from fighting.

The internet outage, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in Syria’s 20-month-old uprising against Assad, which activists say has killed more than 40,000 people.

Regime forces suffered a string of tactical defeats in recent weeks, losing air bases and other strategic facilities. The government may be trying to blunt additional rebel offensives by hampering communications.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned what she called the regime’s “assault” on Syrians’ ability to communicate and express themselves. She said the move spoke to a desperate attempt by Assad to cling to power.

Syrian authorities often cut phone and internet service in select areas to disrupt rebel communications when regime forces are conducting major operations.

The government sent mixed signals about the internet outage but denied it was nationwide. The pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya quoted Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as saying that “terrorists” have targeted internet cables, interrupting service in several cities.

Separately, state-run TV said the outage was due to a technical failure that affected some provinces, adding that technicians were trying to fix it.

Activists in Syria, reached by satellite telephones unaffected by the outage, confirmed the communications problems.

A young Syrian businessman who lives in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, which some refer to as part of “the green zone” because it has remained relatively safe, sent a text message to an Associated Press reporter yesterday that said the internet had been cut in his area and that mobile phone service was cutting out.

He said he was driving Wednesday through the Damascus suburb of Aqraba, near the airport, and saw dozens of rebel fighters for the first time in the area, riding in pickup trucks and motorcycles, and wielding AK-47s.

Their presence so close to the “green zone” may have led to the internet being cut, said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. He said the military was positioned a few hundred meters away from the rebel fighters and had built large speed bumps to enclose the area.

The opposition said the internet blackout was an ominous sign that the regime was preparing a major offensive.

“I fear that cutting the internet may be a prelude to a massacre in Damascus,” said Adib Shishakly, a Syrian opposition figure from Cairo, Egypt.

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