Flights Into Syria Cancelled As Rebels Make Gains
At least two international airlines have cancelled flights to Damascus amid reports of heavy fighting along the Syrian highway that links the airport to the capital. There were also reports on Thursday that the Internet was down virtually throughout the country. Some land lines have also been cut off. Melissa Block talks to Kelly McEvers.
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In Syria today, Internet service was cut across the country apparently by the government and at least two airlines canceled flights to and from the capital, Damascus. These moves come as rebels make gains across Syria and escalate their attacks around the capital.
BLOCK: NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring all this from Beirut and she joins me now. And, Kelly, first of all, talk about this Internet shutdown all across Syria today.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Yeah. It happened around lunch time. We started to see complaints on some of the activist websites, people who are able to access the Internet using like satellite communications or maybe even dial-up communications. And what they were saying was that basically the high-speed Internet was cut everywhere. You know, well, first, we didn't believe it. Then I spoke to the founder and chief technical officer of a company called Renesys. It's based in New Hampshire. And it's his job to basically monitor the entire Internet. And he said he hasn't seen anything like this since Egypt back in early 2011 when the Egyptian government shut off the Internet as protesters filled Tahrir Square. He said it was like watching an entire country go dark.
Later, Syrian officials did go on state TV and say that the outage was because of terrorists, that terrorists had cut a main fiber optic cable connecting Damascus to the rest of the world. But this analyst who I spoke to at this company, Renesys, said, actually, there were a few networks that had remained in operation. The implication was that these were government lines that were still up and running and, again, suggesting that it was the government who shut off the Internet.
BLOCK: And, Kelly, we mentioned the cancelation of flights in and out of the capital. There's been a lot of fighting around the airport. What's going on?
MCEVERS: The airport is located in the east of Damascus, near an area called the Guta, which is a major rebel stronghold and where we've seen a lot of fighting in recent days. What rebels have been trying to do is basically block access to the international airport there in Damascus. This is the civilian airport. There are military airports around the country. One rebel commander told us that they've actually managed to fire mortar rounds at the airport.
There were also reports that two U.N. peacekeepers were injured on that road, people who work in the Golan Heights area. So after all this violence - and the road to the airport was closed for a time today. Two companies, at least two, Emirates Air out of Dubai and Egypt Air canceled all their flights. In fact, an Egypt Air flight that landed in Damascus, deposited its passengers, was told to come back home empty. A Syrian human rights monitoring group says that the fighting around the airport is the worst that it's been since the uprising began 20 months ago in Syria.
BLOCK: Now, Kelly, all of this has led to a lot of speculation that we could be reaching the final battle for Syria, that things really are now at a tipping point. Is that the sense that you're getting?
MCEVERS: That's definitely what the chatter has been today. You know, you hear people say - like I said, worried about massacres coming, that the - this is the final battle for Damascus. But it's important to keep in mind that, you know, the rebels haven't gotten that close to airport. They're still a mile or two away. I mean, they're focusing on the road to the airport. The regime still controls many air bases around Damascus, like I said, these military air bases as well as regular army bases.
And just because the rebels have shot down a plane and a helicopter in recent days, it doesn't mean that the regime no longer controls the skies. We just saw an airstrike today in the city of Aleppo that killed several children. There's horrific footage of that. So while this might be the beginning of some kind of final battle, I mean, that battle could still go on for some time, I think. And I think the sad reality is that this level of fighting could last for a while.
BLOCK: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Kelly, thank you.
MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.