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Fighting rages on near airport

Internet, phones still blacked out

Heavy fighting broke out near Damascus International Airport early yesterday, as telephone and internet lines remained out of service in Syria’s capital and other cities for a second day.

The clashes were concentrated a few kilometers away from the airport, by the villages of Aqraba and Babila, according to activists. Syrian military jets pounded the area with bombs during the fighting.

The Syrian opposition has made significant gains on the battlefield in recent weeks. At the same time, officials in Washington have indicated that the Obama administration is moving toward recognition of a newly formed opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

On Thursday, the airport was closed because of the ongoing battles.

The Associated Press reported that the government reopened the road to the airport yesterday after the early morning fighting abated. The general manager of the Syrian Civil Aviation Agency, Ghaidaa Abdul-Latif, told AP the airport was operating “as usual.”

Some Syrians expressed fears that the unusual telephone and Web blackout was a prelude to a government operation targeting civilians. A bloody war between rebels and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dragged on for 20 months now, with the opposition forces making key gains in recent days.

“We are sure they are preparing dirty games. We don’t know exactly what because it will be a military operation,” said Fadel, 36, the founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, speaking via Skype from Damascus and using only his first name as a security measure. “When they cut the internet in Homs before, there was a big massacre.”

Fadel, like other human rights workers and activists around the country, was able to keep his channels of communication open by using a satellite phone. Gathering information about fighting and other developments had become markedly more difficult since the blackout began, he said.

“We are in trouble actually in gathering information about the casualties,” he said. “We are doing double the work to try to document casualties even in these extraordinary circumstances.”

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said at least 56 people were killed in attacks across the country yesterday.

Hundreds of Syrians turned out for protests against the government in Aleppo, Homs, the suburbs of Damascus and a handful of smaller towns, according to activists. The protests have been a regular event since the uprising began in March 2011.

In the Turkish town of Reyhanli, just across of the Syrian border about 40 miles west of Aleppo, wounded fighters, activists and humanitarian aid workers said communications from within Syria had been spotty to nonexistent in the two days since the internet went down.

“Of course it’s having an effect, but it’s not crucial,” said Nidal al-Aikidi, an official with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an aid group assisting roughly 25,000 Syrians who have found refuge in Reyhanli.

Aikidi said some fighters and military commanders have satellite phones that allow communications to continue.

Several fighters recuperating from their injuries said they had heard virtually nothing from their normal contacts in Syria since Thursday.

About a dozen Syrian men, some of them in wheelchairs, speculated as they sat beneath a tree on a busy street corner, beside a vendor selling Free Syrian Army key chains and worry beads from a folding table draped with the Syrian flag.

A 24-year-old former house painter turned rebel fighter, who gave his name as Abu Muhammad, seemed unconcerned about the sketchy reports coming over his cellphone. He said he had gleaned only a few details about the fighting near the Damascus airport, apparently sent out by satellite phone or through internet connections from towns near bordering countries.

“The main battle is on, and I think the Free Syrian Army is doing good,” he said. He spoke after a Turkish woman in a white headscarf offered him a new blanket to cover his left leg, which had just had a steel rod inserted into it and jutted straight out as he sat in a wheelchair.

Like Fadel, the human rights activist in Damascus, some of those interviewed in Reyhanli expressed a sense of foreboding.

In a former guesthouse converted into a rehabilitation center where 80 injured Syrians were being treated, staffers said they feared that the downed internet meant the Syrian regime was about to launch a major attack.

“When they stop the internet, it means something really bad is going to happen in Damascus,” said Khutaiba, a physical therapist from Aleppo who gave only his first name.

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