x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Damascus fear as internet and roads cut off

Nationwide blackout of internet services and main motorway between central Damascus and the airport closed as fighting intensifies. With Phil Sandsin Damascus

DAMASCUS // Internet service across Syria was shut down yesterday and the main motorway between central Damascus and the airport was closed, as fighting intensified on the edge of the capital.

Mobile phone services were also patchy at best yesterday adding to the unease in Damascus, which has been bracing for a major battle similar to that in Aleppo.

Acrid black smoke hung above southern Damascus as night fell, with a series of buildings close to the motorway on fire.

By early evening there was a lull in fighting.

The internet, which is entirely under government control and heavily monitored by authorities, has been disrupted routinely in many rebel-held areas since the uprising began in March of last year, especially during army offences, but a nationwide blackout is unusual.

State TV denied the internet blackout was nationwide. It said the cut was cause by a technical failure, only affected some provinces and that technicians were trying to fix the problem.

Syria's information ministry said the airport road had been secured after attacks by "terrorist groups" on motorists. It was not immediately clear whether the road had been reopened.

Throughout the day there was heavy fighting in the south of the capital between loyalist army units and rebels trying to topple the president, Bashar Al Assad, and a fourth consecutive day of air strikes by military jets on Daraya, about five kilometres from the centre of Damascus.

Sustained artillery barrages were also fired into the area, with tanks and troops facing stubborn residence from the Free Syrian Army.

Government sources had earlier predicted the military offensive in Daraya, where the regime says it faces Al Qaeda terrorists, would be wrapped up by today.

The fighting intensified as the international Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he was unable to move forward with a peace plan unless it was backed by a UN Security Council resolution. Mr Brahimi warned that a ceasefire would only hold if it was overseen by a peacekeeping mission.

Also yesterday, an air raid on Aleppo killed at least 15 civilians in a the rebel-held area of Ansari, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

US technology companies that monitor web traffic reported yesterday that Syria was effectively cut off from the internet.

Akamai, one of the companies monitoring global traffic, said traffic stopped at 12.26pm local time, and that this supported the observation from another IT company, Renesys, "that Syria is effectively off the internet".

The heaviest clashes erupted between troops and rebels in the towns of Babila and Hujaira south-east of the capital, and in Harran Al Awamid, just east of the airport.

Army reinforcements had been sent to the area, according to media reports. The army also went on the offensive across the eastern outer belt of the capital, notably in the towns of Harasta and Douma, and in Eastern Ghuta, the Observatory said.

Official state media also reported operations in the province and said several members of an "armed terrorist group, Al Nusra Front" had been killed in the town of Aqraba.

Despite months of sporadic fighting and crumbling security in Damascus, the city's airport has remained open. But the fighting yesterday prompted both Emirates Airline and EgyptAir to temporarily suspend flights to Damascus.

A senior EgyptAir official said the flight to Damascus scheduled for today had been cancelled and that the airline had scheduled an emergency meeting to look into whether to halt all flights to the Syrian capital. The airport lies on Damascus' southern outskirts, and the surrounding districts have been strongholds of support for the rebels since the start of the uprising.


* With additional reporting from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse