Yemen mobile firm Sabafon alleges govt vendetta

Tue Dec 20, 2011 5:27am EST

* Sabafon says a quarter of sites attacked by govt-allied forces

* Sabafon subscribers cannot phone abroad

* Calls to and from landlines also barred

* Ruling party denies deliberately targeting Sabafon

By Matt Smith

DUBAI, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Yemeni mobile operator Sabafon said on Tuesday that its facilities had come under repeated attack by state forces because of its chairman's support for protests aiming to end the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

A spokesman for Sabafon, which is 27-percent owned by Bahrain Telecommunications Co (Batelco), told Reuters from Sanaa the company's headquarters had been hit three times by rocket-propelled grenades this year.

He said more than 250 transmission towers and other sites -- about a quarter of its facilities -- had been subject to shelling, gunfire and looting, killing one employee.

Sabafon subscribers cannot receive or make calls to Yemen landlines or phone abroad, illustrating the toll nearly a year of strife in the impoverished Gulf nation has taken on basic services.

"The damage continues ... employees were afraid to attend the headquarters and many sites were shut down, which dramatically affected operations and the company's ability to provide services," said the spokesman.

"These led to an exodus of subscribers to other providers. These unlawful measures are part of a punishment by the authorities on Sabafon because of the position of its chairman, who supports the peaceful popular revolution in Yemen."

An official of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) denied Sabafon was deliberately targeted, and that whatever damages it may have suffered came in the context of hostilities instigated by gunmen allied to Sabafon chairman and major shareholder Hamid al-Ahmar.

Al-Ahmar is the brother of Sadeq al-Ahmar, a leader of the powerful Hashed tribal confederation and a rival of the outgoing Saleh. This month, Yemen's new unity government met for the first time and a presidential election is due in February.

The government claims the Ahmar family was behind a June assassination attempt that left Saleh seriously injured.

The bomb attack capped weeks of fighting between forces loyal to him and those allied to the al-Ahmar family. Skirmishes between the two sides have erupted periodically since then.

GOVT RESPONSE

Abdulhafeedh al-Nahari, vice-spokesman of the ruling GPC, said fighting in the capital had damaged infrastructure.

"He (Hamid al-Ahmar) attacked government buildings in the capital, the government responded in self-defence ... this created bad relations with the government," Nahari said. "All the telecommunication companies in Yemen have suffered as a result of this crisis."

As well as restrictions on making phone calls, Sabafon subscribers are also barred from mobile Internet access.

Sabafon lost has lost "hundreds of thousands" of subscribers as a result of this disruption, the company spokesman said. It had 3.6 million customers at the end of 2010, according to Batelco's annual report.

"The tribal and political fractures in Yemen are also seen in the country's telecoms sector -- Ahmar controls Sabafon, while the government controls the landline infrastructure and the international gateway," said a telecoms analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"This shows Yemen really needs the rule of law and democracy, because vital sectors such as telecoms shouldn't be left to the whims of individuals. Disruption will likely continue until the political situation is resolved."

Sabafon competes against MTN Yemen, a unit of South Africa's MTN, and state-run Yemen Mobile. (Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Tom Finn in Sanaa and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Editing by Sitaraman Shankar)

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