U.S. says Syrian opposition can skirt Internet shutdown

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 29, 2012 3:29pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Thursday it was confident Syria's opposition could use U.S.-provided technology to circumvent an Internet shutdown in the country.

The U.S. State Department said Syrian contacts had informed it that the Internet, along with some mobile and landline communication, had been interrupted in Damascus, Hama, Homs and other parts of the country.

"We condemn this latest assault on the Syrian people's ability to express themselves and communicate with each other. It again speaks to the desperation of the regime as it tries to cling to power," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, forcing the closure of the main airport road and residents reported Internet connections in the capital were down.

The U.S. web tracking firm Renesys said all of Syria's international Internet connections were shut off at 12:26 p.m. local time (1026 GMT) on Thursday and remained down throughout the afternoon.

Syria's information minister told state television that "terrorists targeted the Internet lines."

Nuland said the current interruption appeared to be a "cold cut" as opposed to sporadic Internet outages seen in July and August, but added that the United States was confident that communications gear it had provided to opposition groups would continue to function.

"We've provided some 2,000 communications kits, pieces of equipment, since this effort began," Nuland said, saying the equipment included computers, phones and cameras.

"They are all designed to be independent from and able to circumvent the Syrian domestic network precisely for the reason of keeping them safe, keeping them secure from regime tampering, from regime listening, from regime interruption."

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been working on the crisis from Washington since the United States closed its embassy in Damascus in February, said concern over Internet access had been one focus as the United States developed its package of non-lethal aid for the Syrian opposition.

"Restrictions on Syrian Internet access are not new. The Syrian government has been monitoring it for years. They have been using the Internet with Iranian assistance to track opposition activists, arrest and kill them," Ford told a meeting on Syria's refugee crisis.

"We put a special emphasis on communications equipment, precisely to help the Syrian people tell the world what is going on inside Syria."

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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