Syria internet restored, as fighting rages at Aleppo prison

Syrian opposition fighters attacked the main prison in the northern city of Aleppo in an attempt to free regime opponents, activists said, as an internet blackout engulfed the country for the second time in a week.

2nd nationwide internet outage in 2 weeks

Members of the Free Syrian Army help a wounded fellow fighter in Deir al-Zor on May 14, 2013. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Opposition fighters battled regime troops inside the walls of the sprawling central prison compound in Syria’s largest city Wednesday, hours after blowing open the gate with twin car bombs in an attempted jailbreak, activists said. 

The orchestrated assault began at dawn, but by nightfall, the rebels had not dislodged regime forces or freed some 4,000 prisoners held there, according to two pro-opposition monitoring groups. 

Across Syria, the internet was restored after a blackout of more than eight hours, the second nationwide outage in a week. Syria’s Communications Ministry blamed a rebel bombing which it said cut a cable north of the capital of Damascus but gave no details. Earlier, the state news agency SANA had linked the outage to a technical problem. 

At the United Nations, the General Assembly voted 107-12 with 59 abstentions to approve an Arab-backed resolution calling for a political transition in Syria and condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for "gross violations" of human rights. 

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=3902 size=small]

Earlier this month, the U.S. and Russia agreed on a joint push to get Syria’s political opposition and representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's regime to negotiate a peaceful transition in Syria. An international conference, possibly to be held in early June, would help launch such talks.

However, both the opposition and the regime have said they want to hear more about the agenda, the venue and the participants before signing up. The two sides remain far apart on the terms for such negotiations, with the opposition insisting Assad must step down first and the regime unwilling to commit to an open-ended ceasefire.

The Syria conflict began with a popular uprising in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. Despite the new diplomatic initiative, fighting has continued. 

On Wednesday, opposition fighters launched an assault on the central prison in the northern city of Aleppo after weeks of fighting in the area, in an attempt to free some 250 regime opponents believed to be held there, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a local activist group, the Aleppo Media Centre. 

Number of deaths unclear

The attack began with two simultaneous car bombs detonated at the entrance of the prison, the Observatory said. The Observatory and the Aleppo Media Centre said opposition fighters then surged into the compound and seized one of the buildings. 

By Wednesday evening, battles continued to rage inside the compound, the Observatory said. The group said at least 15 regime soldiers were killed, although it did not have the number of rebel casualties. 

Aleppo-based activist Mohammad al-Khatib said Wednesday’s attack took troops inside the prison by surprise. "Regime forces inside were caught off-guard. Rebels broke in and liberated a building where troops had been holed up," he said via Skype. 

SANA denied opposition fighters entered the compound, saying regime troops had repelled the attack. 

During the battle for the prison, Syrian warplanes bombed areas nearby, destroying several houses, the Aleppo Media Centre said. 

Aleppo emerged as one of the major fronts in the country’s civil war after a rebel offensive there almost a year ago. The fighting since then has settled into a bloody stalemate.

Internet down for eight hours

Wednesday’s internet outage began at around 10 a.m. and service was restored more than eight hours later. 

Syria’s Communications Ministry blamed a bombing by opposition fighters north of Damascus that it said cut a cable. The ministry did not provide details, and the claim could not be verified independently. 

Earlier, the Communications Ministry had reported that a cable was cut near Damascus, without elaborating. On its Twitter account, SANA initially said a technical problem was to blame for the outage. 

James Cowie, the chief technology officer of the U.S.-based Renesys Corp., said the cause of the outage was not clear. 

Syrian authorities have shut off phone and internet service in select areas in the past to disrupt rebel communications when regime forces were conducting major operations, although widespread blackouts have been rare. 

In a sign of the continued spillover of the Syria conflict, police in the Turkish capital of Ankara used tear gas and water cannons Wednesday to disperse hundreds of university students protesting their government’s policies on Syria.

Critics have accused the government of putting Turkey at risk by supporting Syria’s insurgency.

The protest came after two powerful car bombings in a town near Turkey’s border with Syria killed 51 people over the weekend. The government blamed the attacks on a group linked to Syria.

UN resolution passes

At the UN General Assembly, support for Wednesday’s resolution was much lower than the world body’s resolution in August denouncing Syria’s crackdown on dissidents and urging a political solution. 

Russia, a close ally of Syria, urged a "no" vote this time, and a group of Latin American countries demanded changes — which weren’t accepted — to water down the resolution’s support for the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group. 

General Assembly resolutions are not binding. 

Critics of the resolution called it one-sided in favour of the opposition, which the Arab League is supporting, and expressed concern that it could hurt a recent U.S.-Russian agreement to convene a follow-up international meeting to promote a political transition.