(DAMASCUS, Syria) — Someone in Syria pulled the plug on Internet access in the country Thursday, and most of the nation’s telephone service was also cut, raising concerns of many observers that the government of President Bashar al-Assad is gearing up to escalate its crackdown on a rebel uprising.
The networking firm Renesys reported that just after noon local time in Syria, Internet usage dropped to zero and all 84 of the country’s IP address blocks became inaccessible, “effectively removing the country from the Internet.”
Twenty-four hours later, there is still no Internet in the country.
The Net has played a vital role for both sides in the continuing struggle between rebels and government forces of Assad. It helps activists organize and communicate, but it also exposes them to government surveillance. Rebels and ordinary Syrian citizens have uploaded countless videos to document government crackdowns and rebel achievements.
It’s not clear if the communication breakdown is the result of deliberate acts or a power outage. The BBC reports Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, told State TV, “The terrorists targeted the Internet lines, resulting in some regions being cut off.”
Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage on a main highway that connects Damascus with the country’s largest commercial airport. There are also reports of constant government shelling of rebel positions in the city of Aleppo.
Two Austrian soldiers who are members of a United Nations peacekeeping force were injured Thursday when their convoy came under attack along the airport road.
A number of airlines have canceled flights to Damascus because of the deteriorating security situation in the country.
There have been conflicting reports about the status of the commercial airport itself.
The New York Times quotes an anti-government activist as saying the airport was forced to shut down because rebel forces were edging closer.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed the shutdown on an intense government military offensive, while Syrian state media simply stated the airport was closed Thursday for maintenance.
Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, told a Lebanese news website that the airport road was not closed and the government was not responsible for the Internet outage.
The fighting in Syria has gone on for 20 months, with over 35,000 lives lost.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN