Syria Activists Report Phone, Power Blackout Amid Crackdown

Syrian activists reported disruptions to phone, Internet and electricity connections in areas where protests have broken out, after authorities vowed to crush what they called a conspiracy against the regime.

Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from Cairo today that he lost contact with five members of his organization in Banias, the coastal region where tanks have been deployed to suppress demonstrations. He said his contacts in Syria have also reported blackouts in the Daraa area, another center of protests.

“I had my mobile phone cut off,” said Haitham Maleh, 80, a former judge, human-rights activist and lawyer who was recently released from prison as part of an amnesty, speaking in an interview today on a relative’s mobile phone. Electricity in the village of Baida near Banias was cut, Damascus-based human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh said on her Facebook page.

Protests have spread through Syria in the past month following a wave of Arab uprisings that have ousted longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia this year. President Bashar al-Assad, facing the strongest challenge to his rule since he inherited power from his father in 2000, said last month he won’t be rushed into political changes. His security forces have killed dozens of protesters and detained many more.

‘Technical Problem’

“If the regime were trying to shut things down it would be quite easy to pass it off as some kind of regular technical problem,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “Syria doesn’t have a cast-iron phone system, so blackouts and the system going down are not completely unheard of.”

About 5,000 Syrian women, children and elderly men today blocked the highway between Banias, which has one of Syria’s two oil refineries, and Tartous, another coastal city, to protest the crackdown and demand the release of children and relatives in detention, Zaitouneh said.

“Tanks have surrounded Banias since yesterday evening and mass arrests were carried out,” Qurabi said, citing residents he is in contact with. “Army soldiers are interrogating anyone who is young who’s coming into the area and checking to see if their names are on lists of wanted individuals.”

Security forces attacked the villages of Baida and Ajnad around 10:30 a.m. local time yesterday, Maleh said yesterday.

Opposition ‘Fragmented’

“The situation is getting worse certainly and you are seeing that by the regularity of the demonstrations in three different areas -- Daraa, Latakia and now Banias,” Phillips said. “We expect the regime to ride this out because we don’t see the opposition as powerful enough to provide an alternative. It’s fragmented and doesn’t have one clear goal.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday at least 130 people have been killed in the crackdown against protests. Syrian security forces in at least two towns prevented injured protesters from being taken to hospitals and medical personnel and others from reaching them, the New York-based organization said. It cited interviews with 20 witnesses from three towns, and urged authorities to stop using force.

The Interior Ministry denied HRW’s findings in a statement carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency today. It said armed gangs were responsible for preventing police injured in the protests from receiving medical treatment. The Interior Ministry has said it “will not allow the deliberate mixing between peaceful protests and vandalism to sow discord and destabilize the established national unity.”

Foreign Conspiracy

Assad says that legitimate expressions of popular demands are being exploited by foreign-led conspirators to undermine a regime that has opposed Israeli and U.S. policies in the Middle East, and supported Islamic groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“The escalating repression by the Syrian government is outrageous,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “The Syrian government must respect the universal rights of the Syrian people, who are rightly demanding the basic freedoms that they have been denied.”

Syrian state television aired today what it said are confessions of a terrorist cell that was armed and financed by “third parties.” One of the men was shown saying that Jamal al-Jarrah, a lawmaker allied with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, had provided funds to the group. Al-Jarrah denied the allegations in an interview with the Lebanese LBC channel.

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