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Internet is cut, largest airport shut in Syria

BEIRUT — Two major links with the outside world were shut down in Syria on Thursday when Internet access disappeared across the country — raising fears of an impending escalation of the government’s crackdown on the uprising there — and the largest commercial airport in the capital was shut down because of fighting nearby, opponents of the Syrian government said.

Two companies that monitor Internet traffic, Arbor Inc. and Cambridge-based Akamai, released data suggesting that the outage had continued for several hours since about 10 a.m. Syrian time, and that there was no indication it had stopped.

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Meanwhile, the United States is moving toward recognizing the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people as soon as it fully develops its political structure, US officials said Thursday. The move could be announced at a meeting that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to attend in Morocco on Dec. 12.

Whether to recognize the opposition group is the most immediate decision the Obama administration confronts as it considers how to end the government of President Bashar Assad and stop the violence that has consumed Syria. Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council have recognized the opposition.

The Internet has been a strategic weapon for the uprising and the government alike, ­allowing activists to organize and communicate but also exposing them to surveillance.

Fighters, activists, and ordinary citizens upload video showing rebel exploits and government crackdowns but also exposing rebel atrocities — making the Syrian conflict one of the most documented conflicts with the sheer amount of material available.

There were conflicting reports of the reason for the airport closure. An antigovernment activist in Beirut said the airport in Damascus had been closed as rebel fighters edged closer, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed a government offensive.

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State media had reported that it was closed for maintenance purposes, but the activist in Beirut said the shutdown was because of ‘‘hit-and-run’’ strikes by rebels intending to force the closure of the facility, a key conduit for supplies and cash for the government. Forcing its closure, he said, robbed the government of a powerful symbol that the country is still operating normally.

Other activists also reported the closure of the airport, and several airlines said that they had halted regularly scheduled flights to Syria’s capital. An official at EgyptAir said the airline had suspended indefinitely its flights to Damascus because of the security situation in the country , although morning flights to the northern city of Aleppo were operating.

Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, was quoted on a Lebanese news website as denying reports that the airport road was closed, and declared that the government was not responsible for the Internet outage.

Some analysts have speculated that if the government felt core interests were threatened the military might unleash a desperate crackdown.

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