State media say Internet service restored in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — Internet service was restored in Syria on Wednesday, after a countrywide outage cut off the country from the rest of the world for nearly 20 hours, state media said.

The state news agency SANA said a problem with a fiber optics cable was to blame for the second nationwide outage since a two-day blackout in November.

There had been speculation that the regime pulled the plug, possibly as a cover for military actions in the deadly conflict, now in its third year. But no large-scale military offensives were reported Wednesday, and there were no immediate allegations of sabotage by the opposition.

In the past, President Bashar Assad’s government halted Internet service in selected areas during government offensives to disrupt communication among rebel fighters trying to oust him. The last nationwide outage coincided with a major military operation in areas around the capital and near Damascus International Airport.

The current outage began when Internet service abruptly stopped at about 9:45 p.m. Tuesday. It was restored sometime after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, welcomed a new Russian-U.S. initiative to negotiate an end the Syrian conflict, which so far has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations. A decision to convene an international conference later this month to build on a transition plan for Syria is “the first hopeful news” concerning Syria “in a very long time,” Brahimi said.

The goal of the plan, set out in Geneva last year, is to bring the Assad regime and representatives from the opposition together for talks on an interim government. Each side would be allowed to veto candidates it finds unacceptable. The proposal also calls for an open-ended cease-fire and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held and a new constitution drafted.

Brahimi has repeatedly expressed frustrations over the failure to find a political solution in Syria, and has lamented the divisions on the U.N. Security Council that have prevented any international action from being taken.

Iran, one of Assad’s strongest allies, also said it is ready to help any attempt to end Syria’s crisis.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi wrote in an opinion piece that it is up to the Syrian people to choose their political system and president, suggesting Tehran is not wedded to Assad’s continued rule.

“Iran is ready to make successful any fair initiative that guarantees the interests of the Syrian people and restores stability to this country,” he wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar.

The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said Wednesday it welcomed efforts to reach a political solution, but reiterated that any transition must begin with the departure of Assad and officials in his regime.

Syrian officials have said that Assad will stay in his post until his seven-year term ends next year and he will run again. The Syrian opposition says it will not accept anything less than Assad’s departure.

In fighting in Syria on Wednesday, government troops pushed into a strategic town along the highway leading to the Jordanian border.

The regime’s advance into Khirbet Ghazaleh, a town south of Damascus along a key artery to the border, came after weeks of fighting and government attempts to secure the highway.

The push was part of a wider offensive against rebels in which Assad’s troops have regained some areas around Damascus, in the central province of Homs near the Lebanese border and in the region of Aleppo to the north.

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist group, the Aleppo Media Center, said opposition fighters shot down a fighter jet that was bombing rebel positions in the battle for the Mannagh air base near the border with Turkey.

Rebels stormed the besieged air base on Sunday and the fighting was reported on Wednesday inside the sprawling facility, the activists said. Also on Sunday, the rebels downed a military helicopter in the eastern Deir el-Zour region, killing eight government troops who were aboard.

Assad’s forces on Wednesday attacked a military post they had lost to the rebels earlier in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, the two activist groups said.

The Observatory reported heavy fighting in Qusair, a town near the Lebanese border under government siege.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said mediation is underway between people close to the regime and some regional “elements” to make the rebels withdraw from the town although many are still rejecting to leave.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Syrian forces of “ethnic cleansing” in the coastal city of Banias, where activists said troops and pro-government Alawite gunmen killed at least 62 Sunni Muslims last week.

“It is ethnic cleansing. The aim is to frighten people and drive them away,” said Davutoglu in an interview with Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper.

Although Sunnis are the majority among Syrians and mostly back the opposition, the Syrian coast is inhabited by Christians and members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Separately, in southern Syria, rebels continued to hold four U.N. peacekeepers who were abducted Tuesday near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The abduction was the second such incident in the area in two months. It exposed the vulnerability of the U.N. peacekeeping mission during the Syrian civil war and sent a worrisome signal to Syria’s neighbors — including Israel — about the ensuing lawlessness along their shared frontiers.

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Associated Press writer Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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