- Associated Press - Thursday, November 29, 2012

BEIRUT — The Syrian government shut down the Internet across the country and cut cellphone services in select areas Thursday, as rebels and government troops waged fierce battles near the capital’s airport, wounding two Austrian peacekeepers and forcing international airlines to suspend flights, activists said.

The blackout, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in the 20-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Regime forces have suffered a string of tactical defeats in recent weeks, losing air bases and other strategic facilities, and pulling the plug on the Internet may be an attempt by the government to dull any additional rebel offensives by hampering communications.

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

Authorities often cut phone lines and Internet access in select areas where regime forces are conducting major military operations to disrupt rebel communications. Activists in Syria reached Thursday by satellite telephone confirmed the blackout.

Renesys, a U.S.-based network security firm that studies Internet disruptions, said in a statement that Syria effectively disappeared from the Internet at 12:26 p.m. local time.

“In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet,” Renesys said.

It added that the main autonomous system responsible for Internet in the country is the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, and that “all of their customer networks are currently unreachable.”

Akamai Technologies Inc., another U.S.-based company that distributes content on the Internet, also confirmed a complete outage for Syria.

With pressure building against the regime on several fronts, and government forces on their heels in the key fight over the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels have been trying to push their way back into Damascus after largely being driven out after a July offensive.

On Thursday, opposition fighters were battling government troops near the city’s international airport, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, forcing the military to shut the road to the airport.

The Syrian Information Ministry said later that the airport road was secure after attacks by “terrorist groups” on motorists, according to state TV.

It was not immediately clear whether the road had been reopened.

Austria Press Agency said two Austrian soldiers assigned to the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights were wounded Thursday after their convoy came under fire on the way to the airport.

The report, quoting the Defense Ministry spokeswoman, said the two did not appear to be critically wounded.

The operation around the capital comes days after rebels made significant advances around Mr. Assad’s seat of power. Last week, they captured a major helicopter base just outside the capital, and rebels and activists recently said a major opposition offensive on Damascus was in the works.

Despite months of sporadic fighting and crumbling security in Damascus, the city’s airport has remained open.

But the fighting Thursday prompted both the Dubai-based airline Emirates and EgyptAir to temporarily suspend flights to Damascus.

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